In favor of open plan, or blurring the limits of space

Guzmán de Yarza Blache, Architect and Director of the IE Master in Design for Work, Retail and Learning Environments

 

There is currently a great interest in what is being called the Future of the Workplace and, more generally, in everything related to corporate work environments and those linked to entrepreneurship and innovation. What for a long time was considered to be the Cinderella[1] of architecture, workplace design, has in recent years started to be understood with all its social and political implications. In fact, it constitutes one of the fundamental elements of what is now known as the Knowledge Society[2], which we have clearly entered into. This society has created new business models that are not necessarily based on 9-to-5 working days and probably do not measure employees’ effectiveness by the number of hours they spend at their desks, but rather understand productivity as the sum total of much more complex factors, requiring employees to create added value based on creativity and innovation. Likewise, in recent decades a progressive change of the social contract has taken place, from profoundly hierarchical and pyramidal institutional, social and corporate models, to others that are more horizontal and egalitarian.

These factors have caused, since the 1960s[3], the gradual introduction in companies around the world of a type of spatial organization known as ‘open plan’, in which employees do not work in individual offices, but share a common space and facilities. Currently, in countries such as the UK and the USA, more than 70% of white-collar employees work in open plan environments[4]. As well as this kind of spatial organization, a culture of New Ways of Working[5] is emerging. These ways include not assigning individual desks to each member of staff, flexibility in terms of working hours, and boosting a better work-life balance. All these changes have appeared, in most cases, thanks to technology; telecommunications, for example, allow remote working, since there is no longer any need for workers to be located in the same space as other employees. These advances in information and communication technology (ICT) have created a split in the life of the individual, between that person’s real and virtual existences, a split that is only widening with the appearance of the social media, which allow new constructions of a person’s identity and social fabric.

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Open plan policies come with two main advantages compared with traditional office models. Firstly, they promote cooperation and relationships among employees, and also bring a substantial decrease in the number of square meters assigned to each employee, with an overall reduction in surface area required for a certain workforce and a consequent reduction in spending. On the negative side, there has been much criticism of these spaces with respect to reducing employees’ privacy and capacity to create their own environment (sometimes known as ‘nesting’[6]), an important factor in achieving worker well-being. Similarly, there have been many reports of problems with concentration and noise, since telephone conversations and the office’s day-to-day activities may mean a continuous source of visual and acoustic distractions.

It seems to me that the debate about open plan should focus on a detailed analysis of the different activities or ways of working carried out in the companies where there is an intention to introduce this type of office. The application of open plan, per se, without attending to the nature of the work that takes place in each business environment, is something that has contributed to the many problems reported by staff who work in these kinds of surroundings.

One useful approach is to use the taxonomy of working activities which the global design firm Gensler proposes in its Workplace Survey[7] of 2009, which identifies up to four basic daily activities carried out by workers: Focus, Socialize, Learn and Collaborate. Therefore, a good workplace design, in accordance with this taxonomy, should bear in mind appropriate spaces for these kinds of activities, in which matters such as acoustics, privacy, transparency and furniture flexibility are taken into consideration for each basic task. An act as simple as including spaces similar to traditional telephone cabins, which are acoustically insulated and have increased telephone reception and Wi-Fi via signal repeaters, is a positive step that improves the open plan office. If these cabins also have a seat and a place for users to put their laptops, allowing videoconferencing, you now have a facility that goes a long way towards solving most of the common problems involved in open plan spaces (see figure 1).

Furthermore, bearing in mind that employees have to socialize during the working day is of great importance, especially when we consider the tiny rooms with vending machines located in the majority of corporate workplaces, with their high tables and stools that do not allow a moment’s relaxation. The inclusion of an adapted space, with something as simple as a sofa, allows workers to rest at certain moments during the day. At these moments, the staff are still working, but doing so at a different pace, with different concentration levels from those required at other times.

All these thoughts about work spaces and the changes that society is undergoing due to technology bring us to the conclusion that we are currently experiencing a profound blurring of the traditional compartments that Modernity had divided life into. Le Corbusier’s traditional division of the city[8] into work and residential areas, as well as the general ideas of modernist architecture, have permeated into the different spheres of human activity, such as the domestic and the professional spheres, in which each space is assigned to a unique and determined activity. However, now, with the available technology and taking into consideration the great changes happening in society, it is possible to say that almost any activity may be carried out in any place. This is not only due to the ubiquity of mobile artifacts such as tablets and smart phones, but also the nature of human activities related to knowledge and information, whose complexity and fluidity[9] mean it is impossible to understand them as static, categorical things. Work, learning, social life and the acquisition of goods and services by the individual can no longer be restricted to certain hours and timetables. Living in globalized, multicultural societies, our timetables have become 24 hours per day, 365 days a year.

Therefore, and by way of conclusion, I believe that designers and architects are currently facing a very interesting time in which many traditional assumptions need to be rethought. The future space will have to be exactly that, a space; an open and fully flexible space, adapted to any human activity, whether professional, social or even domestic, a space that should be capable of facilitating change, as well as the most surprising activities, many of which have not even been invented yet.

[1] Myerson, Jeremy. New Demographics, New Workspace. Gower Publishing Limited. Surrey, UK. 2010

[2] Florida, Richard. The Rise of the Creative Class. Basic Books. London. UK. 2014

[3] Hookway, Branden. Mobility as Management. The Action Office. Office US Agenda. Lars Muller. Zurich. 2014

[4] Wilson, Duncan. Living Workplace. Arup Foresight and Innovation + Incubation. Arup. London 2011

[5] Florida, Richard. The Great Reset. HarperCollins Publishers. London. UK. 2011

[6] Humphry, Justine. Mess or Nest. www. Smartcompany.com.au

[7] AAVV. Gensler Design + Performance Report.  Gensler. 2008

[8] Frampton, Kenneth. Le Corbusier. Ediciones Akal, Madrid. 2002

[9] Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernidad Líquida. Fondo de Cultura Económica. Madrid, 2009.

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