Imagine this... you've just build a brand new house and your bedroom is a glass-walled enclosure without a ceiling, in the center of the house, surrounded by the kitchen and living areas. At first that might sound cool and different! But unless you live alone, it's not a great idea if you ever actually intend to sleep.
For most people, the state called SLEEP requires some environmental conditions -- namely darkness and quiet -- which are nearly impossible to achieve in the floor plan we're discussing. Glass walls allow light from the other rooms into the space. The open ceiling means you can hear people talking in other rooms. This complete lack of privacy would make even the most easy-going person uneasy. But hey, it looks cool! Such is the case in too many open plan workplaces.
I started my organizing and productivity business in 1998 -- which by the way, is the turn of the LAST century -- so I'm no spring chicken. I've seen workplace trends evolve from private offices to perimeter executive offices surrounding a center cube-farm, to modern "pods" to large open tables that accommodate several work stations.
More than once I've been called in to a modern, fabulous looking office to help the employees actually get things done. The operative words in this scenario are "fabulous LOOKING" because there's not much else fabulous about an open plan office other than how it looks to the casual observer. It's like the glossy pages of a home interiors magazine. It looks pretty but you sure couldn't live there.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not against offices looking cool, but the workplace has a very specific purpose. Unfortunately the open plan office most often doesn't support productive work, and in many cases it actually inhibits it.
How can you possibly carry on a conversation with a customer, prospect, or colleague when there are no walls to constrain your words? How can you make a phone call when you're in a room with seven other people who are also on the phone? How can you be expected to crank out your best work when you have to wear earbuds with white noise just to have a slim chance of staying mentally focused among the myriad visual and auditory distractions in an open office? And Heaven forbid you're an introvert whose very sanity requires being alone for large chunks of the day but you're forced to sit in the buzz of the crowd at work.
Yeah yeah I know, I'm old. I'm a dinosaur, I'm against "progress" and I walked ten miles to school uphill in the snow, both ways. But hear me out. I believe there are ways to have your office look cool and trendy, to facilitate collaboration and employee "collision" (as one Samsung exec advocates) and still create space for your staff to be focused and productive.
If I were designing an office, I'd make it an environmental buffet where people could choose the space that fit their personal work-style, task and project-driven needs and everyday work functions.
Customer service or sales people who spend the majority of their day on the phone would get more private spaces where they don't feel they have to whisper. Creative types would be able to choose either a high-walled or low-walled cube to work in, or an open table, depending on whether their work that day requires solitary focus or collaboration.
I'd include ample group seating areas (that aren't TOO close to quiet zones) where impromptu meetings can happen, or where a person could come if their creative process requires external stimuli. For purely paperless digital workers, I would plan clusters of standing or adjustable workstations each surrounded by glass with a semi-sheer curtain to offer a bit of privacy when they need it. Sure, my plan isn't a detailed, but a big-picture example of how form should always follow function when designing a workplace that fosters worker productivity and contentment.