Is it time to say goodbye to open-plan offices?

Collaboration is the word that has come to dominate our working lives. Over the past decade, it was rampaged out of the fast-moving brainstorm culture of the all-conquering tech giants of Silicon Valley to transform work spaces across the globe.

No office is complete, it seems, without break-out zones full of squashy sofas and ping-pong tables where we can gather in noisy groups to ideate, innovate, and pontificate.

Open-plan with bells on, so the dominant business consensus goes, is the perfect environment for getting the best out of the aggressively sociable, team-loving millennials who increasingly dominate the global workforce.

There’s only one problem. The collaborative office – perfect for forming a creative huddle from which the Next Big Idea can emerge – is destroying our ability to do the actual work necessary to make it a reality.

In fact, it is the prime suspect in a world-wide epidemic of distraction, stress and unhappiness that is seeing productivity plummet amidst a welter of bleeping screens, demanding mobile devices and multi-media information overload.

In our supposed open-plan utopias, we live in a state of constant multitasking and multi-screening for which we pay a high professional price.

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Researchers from the American Psychological Association found that constant interruption and distraction at work makes us 40 per cent less productive, while the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London discovered that ‘second-screening’ lowers your IQ more than smoking marijuana or losing a night’s sleep.

Researchers at Auckland University of Technology found that workers become less productive and friendly when the number of people they share an office space with increases.

As Rachel Morrison, a senior lecturer involved with the research project, says: “Shared work environments are associated with increases in distraction, negative relationships and distrust.”

For tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and innovators, this situation is a disaster in waiting because their open-plan existence could easily undermine their ability to do the uninterrupted, focused thinking that turns a start-up dream into a profitable reality.

As computer scientist Cal Newport says in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World: “Deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive 21st-century economy.

“And yet most people have lost the ability to go deep, spending their days instead in a frantic blur of email and social media.”

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Perhaps not surprisingly, rebellion against the open-plan hegemony is rising in the entrepreneurial ranks. Almost two in five (37 per cent) say they are disengaged and dissatisfied with their noisy and distracted collaborative working environment, according to workplace consultants Steelcase.

Our research at The Future Laboratory points to a new direction for workplace design and purpose in the 2020s, as resistance to collaborative work spaces continues to grow steadily.

Tomorrow’s office will jettison today’s ‘wacky creative playzone’ template in favour of distraction-free Contemplation Zones –quiet rooms and spaces where mobile devices are banned, and intuitive AI systems shield us from the intrusion of all but the most screamingly urgent emails, calls and social media messages.

Rather than being places of stressed-out distraction, the workspace of 2027 will be holistically designed to keep us at our physical, mental and emotional Optimised best.

Cafés serving mood and brain-enhancing food and drink, sound-proofed meeting pods, germ-destroying surfaces to keep us healthy, and workspace plant forests, designed to improve air quality and reduce sound, will come as standard. 

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We can see the template for future anti-open-plan offices around us today. In New York, Primary pitches itself to up-and-coming entrepreneurs as ‘co-working for grown-ups’ with quiet zones, fitness classes, cold-pressed juices and vegan food. “You work best when you feel great,” says co-founder Lisa Skye Hain.

In London, the One Carter Lane workspace has been awarded a WELL certificate – a new measure for the built environment that monitors a building’s impact on human health and wellbeing – for its prototype active green wall, antimicrobial surfaces in communal areas, and sound-blocking green trellises to improve acoustics.

It’s an approach that Alan Fogarty, sustainability partner at Cundall, the designers of the office, expects to see increasingly used over the next decade to break up existing open-plan offices and screen out the noise of video conferencing and ambient office noise. “The variety of spaces allows people to move to where they can focus on the current task,” he says.

Calm and understated interiors will replace playzone primary palettes as in London design agency Accept & Proceed’s new co-working space, Today Studios. 

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Its café, meeting pods, showers and bike storage epitomise next generation entrepreneur workplace expectations. As partner and creative director Matthew Jones says: “Tomorrow’s creatives and entrepreneurs don’t want ‘wacky’ workspaces. They want calm functionality, backed up by great digital technology, to act as a blank canvas for their innovating.”

Indeed, it’s that very technology that promises to further fuel the open-plan backlash in the decade ahead. As AI and Virtual Reality become standard entrepreneurial tools, The Future Laboratory’s research predicts tomorrow’s radically freelance workforce will expect seamless and ‘invisible’ digital technology to be part of every office infrastructure.

Today’s open-plan template will need to give way to modular work spaces that provide virtual reality training, prototyping and conference call rooms. Relaxing meet-and-greet suites will become de rigeur too as the rise of the machines frees us from the grunt work of day-to-day admin, leaving us more time to do what we humans do best: make deals and spark off each other face-to-face.

So whisper it, but our research strongly suggests that the open-plan office – de rigueur as a workplace environment since it was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright for the Larkin Administration Building in New York 100 years ago – is beginning to say its long goodbye.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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