It's time to start thinking about how work will change when companies bring employees back, and the biggest headache may be the same one you had before the COVID-19 pandemic: The open office floor plan.
Social distancing is likely to stick around even when the economy boots back up. Offices will open but have restrictions. Now enter the open office, which was designed for collaboration, saving space, and the somewhat farcical idea that you never need to focus or have privacy.
Nevertheless, open offices gained momentum because companies could save on cost per square foot. The lack of privacy turns out to be cheaper for companies.
Enterprises have spent years retooling office spaces that revolve around open floor plans and the backlash started to brew last year. A study published in the Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society found face-to-face conversations fell as much as 70% in open floor plans. Numerous publications such as the Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, and PBS have chronicled the open office backlash.
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That backlash is going to escalate as the COVID-19 pandemic ends and people go back to offices that are too open. Here are a few reasons why the clock is ticking on open offices:
- Your company may be over offices (and not just the open ones). The great work from home experiment scaled dramatically in the COVID-19 pandemic. Guess what's better than the cost per square foot in an open office? Not having an office at all. CFOs are already pondering what percentage of employees could work from home on a more permanent basis.
- Open floorplans may not seem safe in the new normal. Those bullpen desks mean you're about two feet from about four people. You may miss your coworkers, but you're not going to want to be too close in a post-COVID-19 world.
- Collaboration depends more on technology than proximity. Yes, some teams benefit from open office floor plans, but many did just as well without one. The productivity returns on open offices are spotty at best. There's a much easier business case for video conferencing systems.
- Open offices kept human resources too busy. I can't necessarily quantify this, but there is anecdotal evidence that open office floorplans led to more politics, middle school-ish behavior, and annoyances. If you caught an HR person in a weak moment, they may note that complaints fell as soon as employees evacuated from open offices.
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Bottom line: Open offices aren't going away completely but will significantly be rethought for the new normal in the workplace. Open offices may wind up serving half the employees they used to due to cost-cutting, safety, and worker preferences.