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Rethinking Your Building Space: How Office Layouts Are Evolving

October 8, 2018

Office layouts have been evolving for over 100 years and will continue to do so as we learn more about how people work best.

Jo-Ann Mann, Serraview

By Jo-Anne Mann

Here at Serraview, we’re fascinated by the workspace and the data it can provide - how it functions in order to help work and create a positive workplace.

Today, we know more than ever about the factors that contribute to productivity and collaboration in a workplace, but now that we have the data, we're challenged to figure out what it all means. Once you understand that, you can make decisions about open office layouts, closed offices, collaborative spaces, and other usage and space planning questions. Companies that don't use space planning and space utilization software like Serraview don't necessarily have the data to make those informed decisions.

Let’s look at how office layouts have evolved and how (we believe) they will continue to do so.

A Brief Timeline of Office Layouts

When we consider “modern offices,” we go back a little over one hundred years to the early 1900s. These offices were modeled after factory floors, with long rows of desks and no walls or dividers—a completely open layout. Private executive offices overlooked these worker spaces.

In the 1950s-1960s, the office layout was still open, but the German “office landscape” concept brought executives out of their private suites and arranged assigned desks according to job function.

In the late 1960s, furniture designer Herman Miller introduced “modular business furniture” that was intended to promote collaboration and flexibility. Today, we call modular business furniture “cubicles.”

By the 1980s, “cube farms” were the norm (perhaps best displayed in the 1999 movie Office Space).

With the rise of the internet in the 1990s, the “virtual office” gained traction. Thanks to increased internet access, email, and cell phones, employees didn’t have to physically be in the office to get their work done. Some companies, trying to reduce real estate costs, started encouraging virtual or remote work.

Since the early 2000s, office design layouts have been shifting in all sorts of ways. Cubicle farms started to disappear in favor of open office plans. Trendy tech firms started building creative offices designed to cater to employees’ needs and wants.

Paying attention to your employees’ experience matters—learn why.

Current Trends: Open Office vs. Activity-Based Working

As open office plans grew in popularity, so did the backlash against them. In many cases, these office layouts discouraged collaboration instead of promoting it as promised. Frustrated by noisy spaces and lack of privacy, employees would stay hunched over their computers with headphones on if they wanted to get work done.

In contrast, the activity-based workplace recognizes that different types of work activities, and different types of employees, need different spaces. A marketing manager, for example, might divide her day into focused work, meetings, and collaborative work. In an activity-based workplace, the office layout would provide distinct spaces for each activity. She might start her day in a “quiet zone” workstation, move to a conference room for a couple hours, and end her day at a desk in the marketing department’s “neighborhood” where she can brainstorm and share ideas with her team.

What other advantages does ABW have over open office layouts? Find out.

The Pendulum Swing: Back to Equilibrium

It’s hard to predict what trends in office layouts will prevail over time. Right now, we’re seeing companies go to various extremes: Some are encouraging remote work as much as possible (some don’t even have an office at all; everyone in the organization works remotely), while others, including tech giant IBM, have reversed course and started mandating all employees work in an office.

Everyone is looking for the right mix of efficiency, productivity, collaboration, and innovation. IBM found that something was lacking when people weren’t interacting face-to-face. They needed to bring people back to the office to create “water cooler moments” of spontaneous collaboration and develop mentorship relationships. Other companies are depending on communication platforms like Skype and Slack to build that virtually.

If we expect anything, it will be a softening of extremes. A few companies will choose “all or nothing” when it comes to a traditional office or no office, but the majority will settle somewhere in the activity-based or hybrid office layout.

Tech Continues to Drive Change

One thing we can be sure of is that technology will be used in offices in more ways. Most importantly, in one sense, technology like Serraview’s space planning and space utilization software will become indispensable as companies seek those functional spaces that work best for their employees.

Getting accurate, real-time data about your space—everything from your building systems to activity in Conference Room B—will help you make evidence-based decisions about everything from lease renewals to reconfiguring a floor to getting new office furniture.

Learn how your workplace can attract and retain talent, enhance your employees’ experience, enable collaboration, and more—download our whitepaper on best practices for the modern workplace.

Learn how your workplace can attract and retain talent, enhance your employees’ experience, enable collaboration, and more—download our whitepaper on best practices for the modern workplace.

Download our whitepaper
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