First designed in Germany in 1958, the burolandschaft (open office) really took off in the United States with the invention of the office cubicle in 1964. Today, open layouts are favored both due to their ability to facilitate collaboration and due to the benefit of increased office density.
Over time, private offices gave way to cubicles, cubicles gave way to carrels and carrels gave way to workstations and open desks. Square footage per employee decreased, allowing companies to grow work forces will reducing occupancy costs, and people flowed freely, collaborating informally throughout the day.
However, problems began to appear. Employees in open floor plan workspaces began to don headphones to allow them to block out noise and interruptions. Others took up seemingly permanent residence in "shared" conference rooms or in phone booths. At the same time, some companies found that their employees were working from home, a coffee shop or from "the road." Even more worrisome, a Danish study found that open office plan offices increased sickness-related absences by 62 percent over traditional offices.
While the open office remains a powerful tool to drive collaboration, collaboration is not the only form of work in most companies. After all, many employees spend much of their time with their heads down doing "focus" work. This type of work -- which could be anything from programming to memo writing to cold calling -- requires long periods of quiet concentration. In other words, it's precisely the type of work that can be hard to do in a completely open office.
Your company can have the best of both worlds, though. One of the great innovations of the open office was the leveling of workspace. In a traditional office, space got assigned on the basis of rank, but those distinctions go away when everyone has the same, open, space. That principle -- that rank no longer dictates space -- frees you up to assign workspaces on the basis of need. Workers that need private space can either have it permanently assigned or take it as they need it. Others can still have the benefit of a collaborative environment.
Doing this, in practice, means carving up your open spaces. While you may still retain large open areas, you can also create more team rooms, work rooms, phone booths, and other spaces where your workers can get the privacy they need. By leaving the spaces unassigned, though, you avoid the problem of having rows and rows of vacant offices. When someone needs private space, they occupy it, and when they are done and ready to collaborate, someone else can use it. This increases the overall utilization of your space, letting you make do with a smaller office space.
Applying open office principles without building a fully open office is the key to maximizing collaboration and productivity while minimizing cost and absenteeism. Whether you are building a new space or retrofitting an existing one, a few walls can be a very powerful thing.
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