Goodbye Open Office

Goodbye, Open Office. Hello, ‘Dynamic Workplace.’

With their headquarters largely empty amid the pandemic, tech companies are reconfiguring their open-plan spaces to appeal to employees when they return, with opportunities for collaboration and focus workers can’t get at home.

By Christopher Mims

Sept. 12, 2020 12:01 am ET

When historians of the early 21st century look back on the pre-Covid era, one of the absurdities they might highlight is the vogue for gigantic, open-plan offices. The apotheosis of this trend of breaking down barriers between co-workers must surely be Facebook Inc.’s 433,555-square-foot Frank Gehry-designed open-plan office at its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Opened in 2015, it’s now a ghost town, a monument to offices vacated by the pandemic.

Cramming cavernous spaces with as many desks as they could hold might have increased serendipitous interactions, but it almost certainly reduced productivity and helped spread communicable diseases, including coronavirus.

Companies are now contemplating keeping workers home for many months. Netflix Inc. Chief Executive Reed Hastings, no fan of remote work, recently told The Wall Street Journal he anticipates bringing workers back six months after a vaccine becomes available. So, many are using this time to rethink what their offices will look like when employees finally do return.

This goes beyond making employees feel safer with updated ventilation and enforced social distancing. It’s more about how teams will use these spaces when some remain home, others split their time and still more can’t wait to resume a daily commute and up-close collaboration.

Cue the “dynamic workplace,” a pivot away from the open plan, built on the idea that with fewer employees coming to work on any given day, offices can offer them more flexibility of layout and management.

While open offices and dynamic workplaces share similar components—privacy booths and huddle rooms to escape the hubbub, cafe-like networking spaces, etc.—they’re philosophically distinct. One is intended to be a place where people come (at least) five days a week, and get most of their work done on site. The other is planned for people rotating in and out of the office, on flexible schedules they have more control over than ever.

The open office tried to improve the office-work status quo; the dynamic workplace has to convince people to even bother showing up. Its biggest lures: more varied workspaces for collaboration, and a chance to be away from a distraction-filled home.

“For me it’s fairly clear we’re going to move to this model across every industry, even the more traditional ones,” says Armen Vartanian, senior vice president of global workplace services at Okta Inc., which builds tools that allow secure access to business applications.

People naturally like to work in different environments throughout the day, depending on what they’re doing, says Matt Harris, head of workplace and technology at Envoy Inc., which makes systems to control who enters a building.

In its own office, Envoy has for the past year and a half offered employees a variety of spaces in which to work: desks for focus, couches and clustered seating arrangements for collaboration and socialization. Following the pandemic, the company is working on an office layout with more space devoted to collaboration and socialization. When workers want to be left alone, they’re apt to stay home, or visit a cafe or co-working space closer to where they live.

Illustration: Anders Nilsen THE NEW LOOK OF WORK
  1. Moveable, soundproofed pods | 2. Cafe-style seating with outlets at every seat | 3. Wireless device charging | 4 and 5. High-backed couches and screening plants allow workers to partially isolate | 6. A darkened library-style room for deep work | 7. Ceiling-mounted occupancy sensors track how many people are in a space | 8. Banks of lockers where workers can stash their stuff | 9. Digital whiteboards | 10. No-contact, digital employee sign-in stations | 11. Clusters of desks for departments or groups that want to work together

Okta began redesigning its San Francisco headquarters before the pandemic struck. The company has finished refurbishing its main office but has yet to re-open it to employees, says Mr. Vartanian. At Okta, there are open, airy, cafe-like settings for laptop-toting professionals who are feeling social or collaborative, but also circles of tall couches and plants for when people want to isolate themselves in order to do more focused work, and completely enclosed, soundproof phone booths and conference rooms for calls and meetings.

But by spending to remodel or even rebuild their offices with these new ideas in mind, companies are in danger of repeating the mistake they made when they all rushed to the open plan: ignoring the research that says these layouts may have just as many problems as the older ways, says Libby Sander, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Bond University in Gold Coast, Australia.

Research on hot-desking in office spaces, for example—where employees give up a dedicated space in favor of first-come-first-serve seating—finds that it decreases socialization and trust. This happens because employees figure they might never again see the person they sit next to on a given day, says Dr. Sander. In other studies, employees complain they can’t find their colleagues, that it’s a hassle to find a new spot to work every day, and that such arrangements ignore humans’ innate territoriality and desire to make a space their own.

“If we think about it, bedrooms are the worst waste of space ever, but no one’s suggesting we should get rid of them, because we know the benefits of having a designated sleeping space,” she adds.

Many of these drawbacks can be overcome with what’s called “neighborhood” or “community” flex working, says Joan Burke, chief people officer at DocuSign Inc., a company that makes software for secure electronic signatures.

In this model of flexible working, whole teams—say, HR or finance or engineering—sit together in one area, though its location, size and boundaries could change from day to day. “We think that’s more aligned with what people want; they want to see their colleagues,” adds Ms. Burke. For things people will still want to stash at work, employees could each get a locker.

As for what happens when the toughs in accounts receivable conspire to come in an hour early every day, to claim the best space before those latecomers from accounts payable show up? “At the end of the day, it’s like a restaurant. There are certain tables that are most preferable and we’ll just find a way to work through it,” says Ms. Burke. Her guess is that people will be so grateful they no longer have to come into the office five days a week that such office turf battles will pale by comparison.

For Okta, an additional enticement to come back to the office could be “micro-offices,” says Mr. Vartanian. These smaller offices could be spread across the Bay Area, so that employees who live in San Francisco or the East Bay could go to an office in their own vicinity, and those who live farther down the peninsula would have yet another option. The idea is to eliminate or reduce employees’ commutes, while still providing the amenities of an office setting. It’s all part of a trend toward moving to where the talent is, adds Mr. Vartanian, whether that’s across town or in a different state or country altogether.

The pandemic and the consequent rise of remote work are enablers of this sort of office because with fewer people in an office at any one time—as little as half or a third as many as were there before—there’s more square feet per employee in which to house such amenities. That’s assuming companies continue maintaining their current footprints. One thing that’s not yet clear is to what extent the dynamic workspace is a reconfiguration of existing offices, versus an opportunity to find new, and possibly smaller, offices.

Companies are making a variety of bets on their future needs for office space. Facebook recently decided to lease 730,000 additional square feet of office space in Manhattan, despite the company’s new work-from-anywhere policy. The company plans to turn the former post office, known as the Farley Building, into a giant open-plan office in the same mold as its West Coast equivalents, says a spokeswoman for Facebook. The company still believes in the kind of collaboration, communication and spontaneous connection that can only happen in offices, and for some roles like hardware engineering, there’s just no replacement for a physical workspace, she adds. Inc. is expanding office space in six major cities to accommodate 3,500 additional employees. Pinterest Inc., on the other hand, paid $89.5 million to get out of a nearly-half-million-square-foot lease in San Francisco, on account of employees working from home.

DocuSign is a growing company that is hiring despite the pandemic, but a dynamic plan “will allow us to maintain the office space we have and not lease more until some point in the future,” says Ms. Burke. “Our finance team loves it.”

Whatever the future of offices and work looks like, the old ritual of commuting to a central headquarters in which everyone is cheek by jowl with their co-workers, in a sea of desks broken only by monitors and half-height dividers, seems endangered.

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