CHICAGO – The rise of the open office concept has been met, of late, with predictions of its fall.
Too many distractions, too little personal space and a lack of privacy have hurt happiness and productivity, critics say.
But the open office may not be dead so much as in transition, and it is being shaped by a critical new tool in the design arsenal: data.
Employers, and the design firms they hire, are collecting reams of data about how employees use their workspaces. They’re using seat sensors, infrared cameras, footfall trackers and surveys, while also analyzing e-mail traffic patterns, badge swipes and conference room reservation systems. The information is being used to develop office designs that not only optimize the space but also improve the employee experience.
That’s a change from the process that led to the open office explosion, when employers tore down cubicle walls and axed private offices mostly to keep up with the cool technology firms and save money on square footage, without much consideration of the potential pitfalls for workers, said Elizabeth Dukes, co-founder and chief marketing officer at iOffice, a facilities management software firm.
“There has been a mind-set shift from leadership to really focus on the people,” Dukes said.
The people focus has become necessary because technology allows employees to work from anywhere, so offices have to be not only attractive, but also “crave-able,” to get people to come in, said Ed Nolan, managing director of workplace strategy at Chicago-based real estate company JLL.
Gensler’s Chicago office, a pioneer of the open, doorless concept when it moved to the historic Carson Pirie Scott building 12 years ago, is bursting with data as the architecture firm plans a redesign and expansion of its own workspace.
In a messy back room in an unfinished part of the office called the “white space,” where teams with confidential projects sometimes hide away to work, the walls are covered with charts and graphs analyzing foot traffic patterns, meeting room use and employee perceptions, as well as renderings of the future office that was designed with those findings in mind.
Some of the findings gleaned from data can seem obvious. You may not need sophisticated tools to know Mondays and Fridays have the fewest employees, or that Tuesdays and Thursdays are busiest for meetings. But quantifiable statistics help leadership commit to change, and help encourage skeptical employees to go along with it, Dukes said.
The rise of data analysis comes alongside the rise of what’s been termed “activity-based working,” which scraps assigned desks for certain groups of employees and instead offers a variety of spaces for different activities — huddle spaces for focused work, collaborative zones for team meetings — as well as the technology and processes that help employees use it.
The idea of sensors and tracking devices doesn’t sit well with everyone. Firms insist that the data being collected are not attached to specific, named employees — “this is not about how often does Sally go to the bathroom or how many cigarette breaks does Jim take,” said Michael Kruklinski, head of Region Americas for Siemens Real Estate — but the feeling that Big Brother is watching can draw resistance from employees.