The End of Open Space Planning?

A few months ago, pre-pandemic, I wrote an article about some of the changes we’ve seen—and, at the time, expected to see—in office space. That was mid-March. In only a few short months, so much has changed—and profoundly so.

Case in point: the great experiment in open office space. Once hailed by financial departments as a tremendous opportunity for savings, the open office space model has met its final demise, thanks in large part to the pandemic. Not surprisingly, most people aren’t exactly sad to see it go. As it turned out, the open office space floorplan caused more problems than good.

According to Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein, open-space layouts adversely affect productivity due to both the noise level in the office and the susceptibility to visual distractions. That was pre-outbreak. Add “health hazard” to the list of drawbacks of the open office space model, and you can almost hear the knells ringing.

We’re also seeing a shift in cubicle spaces. Before, cubicles offered flexible configuration options whereby employees could work in groups, which facilitated interaction and minimized feelings of isolation. Now, thanks to CDC regulations (and plexiglass), cubicles include physical barriers as a protective shield from their cubemate. That doesn’t exactly promote feelings of unity and teamwork (more like a prisoner communicating through a window by way of a wall phone).

As more employees work from home, less space will be needed to accommodate a workforce. On the flip side, each space will need additional square footage to ensure social distancing. Notably, South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control released the results of a recent study of a call center comprised of 216 employees. In only 16 days, 90 of the 216 (41%) tested positive for COVID-19. This is not particularly surprising, considering call centers are notorious for their small employee spaces. (After all, all they need is a desk and a phone.) It will be interesting to see how the environment around us continues to unfold. One thing we know for sure: the new normal won’t be anything like the old normal.

The question is, what will the new normal look like?

I have spoken with several colleagues in the industry, and the consensus is this: very few companies have actuated long-term plans in making the necessary changes. Typically, reconfigurations occur when a company relocates to a new space. Or if it is done in an existing space, it’s done slowly, in phases. But now, in order to accommodate social distancing in physical workspaces, businesses are expected to make significant modifications in short-order—a potentially costly undertaking that falls on the shoulders of the tenant (unless they choose to relocate).

The business community’s response to COVID began as a reactive one. Businesses, suddenly thrust into survival mode, were focused simply on keeping operations going amid the calamity that befell them. Now they face the question of how they will accommodate their workforce moving forward into the foreseeable future. Can they sustain a remote workforce? If not, what will the physical office space look like? Will they stagger on-site employees? Who will require a private office? The fact is, the square footage of the space needed will inevitably expand for many businesses as they accommodate the physical space requirements of social distancing.

As with the space modification requirements, businesses also need to factor in technology—purchasing better telecommunications technologies or ensuring greater security for remote employees that need to access a company network, for example. Businesses need to factor in the costs associated with technology that supports the rapidly evolving workplace as the new normal begins to make itself known.

What will the future hold? I wish I knew. Right now, my goal is to make you aware of some of these considerations as you plan for the road back.

I look forward to revisiting the topic with more clarity and guidance once the dust starts to settle.