Working in an office comes with two challenges: productivity and collaboration. In an ideal world, you could shoot two birds with one stone—that is, work at an insanely efficient rate while fostering teamwork.
But this doesn’t happen in the real world. Managers decide which comes as a priority at the expense of the other. Oftentimes, the blame is assigned to the office layout.
The Rise of the Open Office
Traditional offices were littered with cubicles, the partitioned workspaces that many considered as stifling. The 1950’s saw a change in the office landscape as German brothers Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle designed a workplace void of partitions.
This new office plan encouraged communication and teamwork among employees by removing hindrances to interactions and movements. It won the hearts of many companies that wanted to increase workspace area while reducing furniture cost.
Cubicles cost twice as much than the long desks often found in open office layouts. An 8-foot-by-8-foot cubicle costs about $3,500, whereas a bench station costs about $1,250. Looking at those numbers, an executive can make a decision based on cost. Open office space wins hands down.
But the real cost here lies not on the price tag of office furniture. According to a survey by the Oxford Economics, open office plans can hinder productivity.
Although they are meant to boost collaboration, open offices do not necessarily promote productivity. While employees can openly communicate with each other, visual and noise distractions prevent employees from working efficiently. Without any walls to block out distractions, thinking deeply becomes nearly impossible.
“Quick chatter”, ringing phones, and other commotions waste employees’ time. The lack of control in the environment means that employees have to come up with ways to signal others that they are busy at work.
Headphones on usually means that an employee does not want to be interrupted, which sadly goes against the culture of collaboration that open spaces aim to promote.
The Action Office
Both cubicles and open office floor plans have their own merits.
Cubicles deter interruptions that would hinder productivity. Since cubicles have walls that cut down visual distraction, focusing on work is easier. They also have built-in power plugs and sockets where employees can easily plug in their equipment without disturbing their colleagues.
On the other hand, it is much easier to connect with others with an open office layout. With fewer physical barriers, communication flows better.
But neither the cubicle nor the open office layout is perfect. Both have their shortcomings when it comes to productivity and collaboration.
In 1964, Herman Miller, an American furniture company, designed what would have been the ideal office layout.
Called the action office, this workspace features multiple desk heights, larger surfaces, and other moveable components that allow employees to sit or stand while working.
The goal of the action office is to give workers the autonomy to modify their working spaces—to sit or stand as they please—and boost their productivity in the process.
Unfortunately, other office furniture companies saw this as an opportunity to cherry pick parts that they would later sell as individual components. The modular components are space-savers perfect for companies that want to maximize their real estate, but they lack the human touch attributed to the action office originally designed by Herman Miller.
The Modern Office
These days, we see a combination of the traditional cubicle and the open office layout. Long worktables are still part of the office design, but pods and other enclosed spaces provide some privacy.
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