It’s been nearly a century since Frank Lloyd Wright designed the first open office design plan back in 1939 with the intent to encourage teamwork. The ‘design’ consisted merely of a few white columns, filing cabinets, and oval desks. Since then, the effectiveness of the open office has been a polarizing implication within the design community.
Because productivity is a direct result of an efficient workspace, the conversation around the office space is relevant to employees everywhere. Research suggests that poor office design can have inadvertent repercussions – the high concentration of people and low privacy is taxing on concentration and a strain on teamwork. Open office design, for that reason, has often been condemned as a counterproductive business model. A recent study revealed that employees within open-plan offices spend 73% less time in face-to-face interactions, whereas email and messaging use went up more than 67%.
As 2020 encroaches upon us, a select few designers have concurred that open design can, in fact, be an effectual model, if implemented correctly.
Ladders caught up with two lead designers at Steelcase, the global surface materials designer Kaitlyn Gillmor and Senior Interior Designer Jon Rooze, to gather their forecasts on the trends we can expect to see in 2020.
“The open office is the end-goal. Collaboration is important for how teams work together. The workplace as a social landmark is a trend that isn’t going away. The key is establishing an office environment that works effectively as an ecosystem on the whole,” said Rooze.
The designers forecast a predominant trend in the personalization of space. Brands will strive to be more transparent about their products, allowing for real, meaningful connections.
In one of Steelcase’s recent studies, they found that although 77% of employees have their own assigned workstation, the vast majority—87%—spend two to four hours every day working someplace else. Given the fact that 69% of all offices now have an open floor plan, according to the Steelcase Global Report, this fostering of authentic connections in teamwork is absolutely necessary.
Steelcase’s 5 design implications for 2020:
A key component to the new office design that the Steelcase designers have picked up on is a greater push toward sustainability — in both the physical and abstract sense.
In order to achieve this, transparency is essential. People need to see beneath the surface. Whether it’s showing the origin story behind a product, or re-contextualizing ‘waste’ as a resource, designers will continue to make sustainability a rudimentary component.
“The bigger idea around origin stories is that there is an increasing interest in people wanting to know where materials are sourced…sustainability is integrated into all our design models. We’re constantly aware of how to minimize the amount of material we’re using,” said Gillmor.
“Brands want to come forward and demonstrate their own story,” said Rooze.
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According to the Steelcase designers, space should be indicative of a company’s values. If this isn’t immediately apparent upon walking into the office space, a redesign is necessary.
“People want to connect in a more physical way in the workplace…the workplace is a social landmark in people’s lives,” said Rooze.
In order to achieve this symbiosis, Rooze emphasizes the importance of ‘Functional team zones’. In this model, while teams may have individual workspaces allocated to their team alone, there should always be one ‘home-base’ in the office in which all employees can come together.
“It’s critical to have a home base where you can speak to each other without disturbing others. There’s good noise (the noise that comes from your team) and bad noise (noise from the other team). It’s so important to establish a balance that holds the tension to build that team space while allowing for openness in the rest of the environment. It should be a dynamic ecosystem. This allows for a cross-pollination of minds where people can still come together and speak freely,” said Rooze.
According to the Steelcase designers, there has been an increasing focus on creating office spaces that become destinations in which groups of people want to visit together.
“There’s an intense collaboration amongst teens and the way they come together and get information to each other quickly, and then send that information to people around the world. So we’re seeing a global interconnectedness. In design, we consider the things that are barriers to collaboration and dismantle them. How does this carry beyond being at a desk? This leads us to consider how we can use the entire space of an office to optimize its full potential,” said Rooze.
“We aim to create a module that would break things up into different spaces, giving team parameters and thus establishing psychological safety,” said Rooze. One example of a home base Rooze cited is a kitchen table — it creates a nucleus from which team members can gather around before returning to their own work zone. The emphasis here is on optional socialization; employees can come and go from the home base as they wish.”
With the rise of the Boomer Generation eclipsing traditional workplace structure, designers are becoming more reliant on digital elements to streamline flow in the office spaces. Three of the five top barriers of collaboration are related to technology, according to a Steelcase study.
“We’re seeing a massive increase between physical and digital ways of working. This provides the opportunity to make completing tasks easier by augmenting the way people work so that employees can focus on things that are more creative, or that humans can do better than artificial intelligence can,” said Gillmor.
In one study, the Steelcase researchers found that the design of the space tends to create friction between people and technology—whether its a comfortable chair people don’t want to get out of, or a table — the space can be an obstacle to those interfacing with the content on the screen, resulting in disengagement.
Make Your Mark
The workplace has always been impersonal. But, according to recent research by Steelcase, the personalization of workspaces allow for a more streamlined workflow and collaboration amongst teams. The trend of personalizing space is not so much about ownership, but more about optimizing individual performance in a shared space. This means creating a space from which employees can freely shift furniture and elements of the space around to suit their performance style.
“We connect virtually to screens rather than physically connecting all ties into the concept of figuring out technology and giving back to the actual process of work,” said Rooze.