Open offices are overrated


Stop! Let’s break this down. We all know open offices are bad. There’ve been studies that show that private offices
“clearly outperformed” open ones. Open offices are about saving money. Pricey real estate means that every square foot’s a dollar sign, and that’s fine. But we don’t like to talk about it that way. We act like it’s about interaction and collaboration, even though studies have shown that ease of interaction
is not an issue in any type of office. To be clear, I am throwing stones from a glass office. This is where I work. My desk is incredibly close to my poor neighbors, I always have to wear headphones to concentrate, and nobody ever… …talks. But when you look at really cool companies, across the board they all have open offices to “encourage interaction and openness.” Dog vacation website? Open office. Charity website? Open office. But this is not just penny pinching. We talk about them like they’re better, and they used to be. Open offices were once works of art. They were just ruined… by too many bad copies. This is an open office. It’s a post office from 1872. Open offices weren’t invented by hip millennials. This is not a barista. This is not a Feng shui consultant. Clerical work was done in big open spaces as early as the 1750’s. But small rooms were most common. By the 1900’s, more and more people were spending their days in offices. One genius wanted to make offices more open, and he wanted open spaces to work better. “The Eminent American Architect Frank Lloyd Wright”. “Come in lad. Instead of a building being a series of boxes and closets, it became more and more open,
more and more a sense of space.” Wright’s known for his houses, often with open plans, but he designed offices too. In 1909, he experimented with open offices
in a Buffalo building. In 1939, he created a masterpiece in Wisconsin. The SC Johnson company needed a new headquarters, so they asked Wright to design it. They make cleaning products like “RAID!!!!”
(bugs screaming) “Yes Raid, new bug killer discovery from Johnson’s Wax.” The administrative building was the highlight. It was a stunning open office. Wright believed new materials, like steel, enabled bolder designs. “The box was a fascist symbol and the architecture of freedom and democracy
needed something beside the box.” Just in case you missed that, he just said boxes are fascist. Yeah. Doesn’t that sound a lot like modern open office hype? But there were big differences between what
Wright made and what we have today. This thing was incredibly well designed. First are these dendriform columns. Dendriform means tree like. They were so elegantly skinny,
they worried building inspectors. The ceiling let in natural light. Visitors compared it to a cathedral. Wright also specially designed each of these desks and chairs. Just look at all the space between them. And managers got private offices on a mezzanine. Wright said that it paid off. “One of the first consequences was tea in the afternoon, and they didn’t like to go home.” But Wright’s open office was very different from the open drudgery in, say, 1960s “The Apartment.” People eliminated Wright’s careful design work and made a copy of a copy of a copy. Open, but without Wright’s genius behind it. That’s why people thought a “cubicle” might be the solution. The May 1968 issue of Progressive Architecture has a lot of gems. Like this flooring that’s…asbestos tile? Hindsight 20/20 probably shoulda gone with linoleum. Page 174 has a spread about a movement called Bürolandschaft. It means “office landscape,” and started in Germany in the 1950’s. By the 60’s, it had made its way to America. Look at this diagram of DuPont Chemical’s boxy, very organized offices before Bürolandschaft. And now look at the fluid, organic layout they ended up with. The idea was to make offices open, but keep them flexible. Herman Miller did the same with their “Action Office.” “And what exactly is Action Office?” “Well, I’m walking through it right now.” Herman Miller’s Robert Propst designed it to break up space, but it allowed for easy interaction and rearrangement. There were even special task groups for
each part of the office. The idea was constant flexibility with specifically designed furniture. But when people copied Bürolandschaft and Action Office, they forgot the flexibility and
attention to detail. They only saw the walls. So over the decades we got a copy of a copy of a copy. And went from thoughtful design to cubicle farm. “We’ll go ahead and get this all fixed up for you.” “Great.” Today’s supposedly hip open offices are,
in part, a reaction to cubicle hatred. But many lack the care and attention of the open offices
of Frank Lloyd Wright, or the partitioned privacy of Herman Miller and Bürolandschaft. We’ve kind of got the worst of both worlds. The open offices we have are overrated bullpens, but the idea is worth executing well. Because it matters too much to stop trying to fix it. “By that we mean the 40 hours a week, the 87,000 hours, the nearly 10 full years of your life you spend
inside the four walls of one room.” So I don’t wanna leave you with the impression that
Frank Lloyd Wright’s open office was perfect. His custom-designed three legged chairs
turned out to be kind of unstable, and they were eventually replaced.

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