There has been another bout recently of badly-informed, barely-researched anti-open plan workspace ranting, with claims of multiple forms of toxicity including communicable diseases made possible through the over-release of cortisol (never mind the train carriage you were intimately crammed into on your way as this clearly wasn’t a contributor), anxiety and insanity (excusing any impact of the management culture you work in, which is clearly a source of unbridled joy). All these articles usually have one thing in common, over and above of course that the writer personally detests working in open plan but likes to let us know by saying it’s bad for us all – they never offer an alternative. It’s easy to be click-bait negative with a sensational headline and overly-dramatic verbal gesticulating, but it’s not so easy to say – look, I don’t like this even though I appreciate why it’s happened, but here is a workable alternative that I think is better, and the reasons why.
I have therefore set out to make it easy. I would genuinely like to know which workstyle is preferred. You just can’t leave us in this agonising limbo. So, if you’re about to go full Malcom Tucker on open plan, please tell us which of these you would like instead. I have tried to include every workstyle we have used over the last hundred years, and a few that are still evolving.
What follows is not a history as some of the earlier forms that were developed are still with us – in fact none have been so discredited as to have lapsed. Yet none have been so successful that they remain the plum choice if only organisations had the budget, common sense, decency and space available to make it happen. The reason that there are so many variants is that they have all been conceived in the belief that they are right for the time or the need, and that all others don’t cut it. I think I’ve built each type over the years, too.
So, critics of open plan workspace, let’s not be having all this negativity without a constructive offering too. I have even added a reference – so you can just quote that, made from its genre and sub-genre. A summary table is shown below, and a description of each follows. If you can think of a new one, please let the world know. Then we might be able to have a proper debate. Otherwise you’re just adding to the noise, and you’re on mute until you engage.
|TIC||Traditional||Individual Cellular||Individual private offices for all staff|
|TMC||Traditional||Mixed Cellular||Private offices for all staff, from 1-10 people|
|TMM||Traditional||Mixed, Manager-centric||Perimeter private offices for 1-10 people, with open plan desking|
|TME||Traditional||Mixed, Employee-centric||Inboard private offices for 1-10 people, with open plan desking|
|OPA||Open||Assigned||Fully open plan, assigned (1:1) desking|
|OTF||Open||Trading Floor||Fully open plan, assigned (1:1) specialist desking|
|OPH||Open||Hotdesk (or Ratio)||Fully open plan, non-assigned desking|
|OPM||Open||Mixed||Fully open plan, some assigned and some non-assigned|
|ALB||Agile||Landscape (Bürolandschaft)||Assigned desking, with range of alternative work settings|
|ABZ||Agile||Activity-Based, zoned||Variety of unassigned work settings for various activities, with team zones|
|ABF||Agile||Activity-Based, free range||Variety of unassigned work settings for various activities, single zone|
|ALG||Agile||Lounge||Range of unassigned work settings, no formal desks|
|ASC||Agile||Scrum||Desking arranged for assigned scrums (8-12), with supporting agile space|
|FCW||Flexible||Co-work||Private offices for 1-25 people, access to shared space and amenities|
TRADITIONAL, Individual Cellular
Individual private offices for all staff
Somewhere between the X5 and the golf course, this format still exists. Way back when everything was beige, it was considered a human right. Even now, the size of the office, number of windows, direction faced, the floor on which it is located, carpet pile loop count and thickness, and whether the door opens from the inside depends on your importance – your space says something about you, removing the need for introductory smalltalk. The format necessitates a directly related consequence – the corridor – in which nothing ever happens because everyone ritually averts their gaze as they pass. It originally gave rise to the idea of ‘corridors of power’. No-one ever talks about the ‘variable circulation routes (to encourage serendipitous encounters and exchange of ideas) of power’. Not yet, anyway but you know it’s coming. This format remains associated with power.
TRADITIONAL, Mixed Cellular
Private offices for all staff, from 1-10 people
It became apparent to some organisations that a bit of flexibility might help with the spiralling cost of drywalling from continual office building and re-building, and that if offices were a bit bigger they could have a few people in them as long as it said something about all of them in equal measure. Left to their own devices, which no-one ever dares allow, this is often the chosen format for journalists and lawyers. It has (when the number of occupants exceeds one) all the disadvantages of open plan they like to espouse – noise, interruption, the torment of the tedious half of every phonecall and the amplification of the less desirable habits and omissions of all occupants, and the worry about the myth of the spread of communicable diseases…. and none of the advantages. It is the workspace equivalent of a static caravan park near Skegness in which all the families have been randomly shuffled. It still had corridors in which nothing happens.
TRADITIONAL, Mixed, Manager-Centric
Perimeter private offices for 1-10 people, with open plan desking
Inspired by rail and air travel, the idea of a tiered system of accommodation rather than a complex scale of attributes brought many people out of their incarceration into open plan space leaving the enclosures for managers who are of course the most important people. Under this format they get the daylight, the views, the windowsills for piles and files, and that ultimate symbol of power their own meeting table. Everyone else gets what’s left. This format first gave Space Standards an importance, where the new frontline became the Battle for an Office. If you qualified you were Someone, if you didn’t you were No-one. People who are Someone as measured by their accommodation usually get other stuff too like cars and shares and bonuses. When you’re Someone, the office door opens into a playground of plenty. The Battle for the Office still smoulders, like an abandoned barbecue.
TRADITIONAL, Mixed, Employee-centric
Inboard private offices for 1-10 people, with open plan desking
In an incredible political shift, some organisations accepted that while managers were the most important people they weren’t quite as important as they used to be and so while retaining their offices they lost their right to look at their neighbouring building’s aircon units, and instead got a plum view of all the people who didn’t used to have a view but now had a view of their neighbouring building’s aircon units. The offices needed glazed fronts to prevent the late onset of rickets amongst the privileged. It was probably the first small shift in the balance of power, as for the first time the private office became deemed something functional rather than a pure, unabashed symbol (cymbal) of status with no reference to competence and contribution: in fact, it coincided with the earliest realisation that in some instances the two were often inversely proportional. The open space assailants often forget, while rattling their pitchforks, its roots in helping dismantle the visible expression of hierarchy within organisations, and disassociating space and power.
Fully open plan, assigned (1:1) desking
The shift then became a shove. Of course, predominantly or fully open space is nothing new – a glance at photos of the Time & Life Building from the 1920s shows how we once all worked in open, perfectly aligned rows, in full view of our Frederick Taylor-inspired managers because we could not be trusted. We came full circle with the complete removal of walls and opening of space. Managers were finally turfed out of their offices and into the humiliating de-symbolised open plan steppes where everyone could see and hear everyone else, and everyone had the same desk. At the time, other assets disappeared too, as the expensed car became an allowance. Having to sit with their people, managers have to actually talk to their people, and have to be available when their people want to talk to them. Open plan offices mean that for everyone, managers included, setting a good example and being a good neighbour are important.
OPEN, Trading Floor
Fully open plan, assigned (1:1) specialist desking
In a strange twist in the development of workspace, the Trading Floor is an anomaly – a massive rack-and-stack open plan, noisy, disturbing, stress-belching environment populated by people earning more in an hour than most mortals in a year (and sometimes losing the same), an insane way to work yet where the idea of working any other way would be insane. Symbols of status and independence are expressed in monitors with as much unintelligible information on them as possible – and earnings. It breaks all the rules of workspace for everyone else, but it doesn’t matter. Nobody ever wrings their hands and says the open plan trading floor is a bad thing. The response would probably be fruity.
OPEN, Hotdesk (or Ratio)
Fully Open plan, non-assigned desking
Those who once lambasted Frederick Taylor for creating the ideology of control through observation and measurement at last borrowed his approach to turn the tables, with the creation of the ‘utilisation study’ that showed clearly that most space was only occupied half of the time or less, and so was ridiculously wasteful and created a drab atmosphere. Therefore, if desks were not assigned but shared, as they were all pretty much the same, either some could be taken away and less space occupied or more people could be added. It later aligned with the idea of collaborative consumption – usage trumps ownership – but that seems to have been ignored. There was a monster saving to be had for the people who were targeted with saving money (‘value’ hadn’t been invented yet) and a chance of a more ‘buzzing’ environment.
Whether a seat is available when you need it is of course dependent upon the key decision – the sharing ratio, as in, how many desks per group of people. Annoyingly this is phrased in two ways – the one we can understand that deals in whole people, as in a number of desks for every ten people (7:10 for example) or the unfathomable way, how many people per desk (1:1.3 for example) because its considered that people are divisible. As the logic often makes more sense to those running the business, who often still have their own space, than those using the space, it gifts the ant open plan lobby a universal argument – it’s all about saving money. In many cases of course, it is. Just like a pay scale or a travel policy or any of the other things a business does to keep costs down.
Most journalists and academics have always seen all variants of the ‘Open’ and ‘Agile’ formats, when they squint hard enough as this format – swathes of open space, rows of battery-farm desks, and other than for meeting rooms no ‘alternative’ settings in which to escape the madness. This is where they get it all wrong.
The logic ran that if you take away a quarter of this space and give it back as interesting and useful space for other types of work, you get the same total number seats but a much more useful and interesting workspace it. So, 100 desks (half occupied) and 40 seats in meeting rooms and a few breakout spaces occupied by 100 people becomes 70 desks (mostly occupied) and 70 seats in much more useful meeting rooms, breakout, quiet and interactive spaces.
Fully open plan, some assigned and some non-assigned
In a move not even remotely able to pacify the protesting pitchforkers there have been frequent responses to the emergence of ‘one size fits all’ models of workplace design (as in, we’ve cracked it, we’ve found the panacea at last, we can all go home) and in respect of fully open plan fully hotdesk was the realisation that some people actually needed their own desk because all they did was sit at a desk all day and people neede to know where that was, so there may need to be a balance between allocated and unallocated units. This created its own version of the battle lines once drawn over desks versus offices, with a more subtle prize but no less emotion involved. Managers usually got their own desks even though they needed one the least, because their importance was undiminished, in their own eyes at least.
AGILE, Landscape (Bürolandschaft)
Assigned desking, with range of alternative work settings
We here enter a new genre, Agile. The first approach is an interesting one in terms of categorisation because it effectively appeared in the late 1950s early 1960s, attributed with being invented by the Quickborner consultancy but developed in parallel by Robert Propst in the USA in the form of Action Office, and then became swamped by cubicle farms. Bürolandschaft, or ‘office landscape’ meant taking the rigid layouts of the 1940s and early 1950s and shaking the box, creating organic arrangements with few constructed walls and little enclosed space.
Today we have reinterpreted this approach, but have been reluctant to credit it, as we like to claim everything we think of as new in the form of environments with both allocated desking and a range of supporting alternative settings. The opportunity to move away from the desk to other settings gives rise to the idea of ‘agility’ in the format. Allocated desking removes the political squabbles, but without offices it still irks many. The most obvious examples today are the West Coast tech giants, who have been reluctant to experiment with shared desking but have enriched their spaces with amenities and alternative settings.
AGILE, Activity-Based, zoned
Range of unassigned work settings for various activities, with team zones
Most environments deemed ‘agile’ are considered to be this format, effectively Bürolandschaft with shared desking. That might be trivialising devotees of the 1985 paper by Luchetti and Stone. It was of course based on the 1962 Marvin Gaye B-side ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat, That’s My Home’ made a little more famous by Paul Young in 1983. The idea is simple enough – a range of settings designed to support the individual and collective tasks undertaken during a typical day, shared by highly mobile occupants – but the interpretation can be complex, with settings specified to do things you didn’t know you were doing and in some cases, didn’t even believe possible.
As people are asked to move between desks and settings they are be deemed to be even more agile than Landscape, and so the most popular use of the word ‘agile’ in workplace terms is for ABW. Where open plan has come in for a public-school style kicking, it usually isn’t directed at ABW because the duffers don’t know what it is so they can’t beat it up. It is the format that best addresses the problems of traditional and open formats without being a compromise between the two.
‘ABW’ (activity based workplace) also something of a brand problem, in that it is often seen by non-industry folk as guff, and let’s face it they do have a point.
This version of ABW is that where teams have a zone assigned, which may be clearly defined or blurred at the edges, and each team zone will likely border another and so a degree of ebb and flow is expected. It’s become vogue for these areas to be called ‘neighbourhoods’. People know where to find their colleagues, and they generally work in the same area every day. This approach is generally best suited to larger workplaces. Some assign a different name to this approach, which is entirely unnecessary and is just more jargon in an overcrowded bullpen (see what I did there?)
AGILE, Activity-Based, free range
Range of unassigned work settings for various activities, single zone
A variant of ABW is where people are allowed to roam free, free as the wind blows. Like free range chickens, where everyone effectively shares the same zone. The idea of a total free for all rather freaks most people out – but in reality, the approach only works for smaller workplaces where the community size is contained – so, less than 150 people.
Some have tried to regulate this scheme with sensors beneath desks and rudimentary software that shows you a red, amber or green dot on a screen where desks might be occupied, becoming available or free. This type of mind-numbing application reduces the ‘activity based’ workplace to a commoditised desk farm in which no-one has to look, think or talk, an example of technology softly and slowly killing the workplace.
Range of unassigned work settings, no formal desk
While the range of settings within ABW usually consists of around half being desks of some form, in some instances – usually highly creative, small to medium sized businesses based in areas of high concentrations of avocado mashers – have opted to dispense with the desk altogether. People moved, puzzled, between a range of settings wholly unsuited to using a laptop or paper. Ironically this section was written on the laptop in an armchair and it was bloody uncomfortable. They usually look great, should you wish to stop a while and read your copy of Dazed and Confused, but are likely to remain niche.
Desking arranged for assigned scrums (8-12), with supporting agile space
To confuse matters, if they were not yet confused enough, the word ‘agile’ was coined by a different industry first – in the form of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which originated in Snowbird, Utah, in 2001. With it came a process that quickly institutionalised, complete with a way of working that defined workplace needs, and a huge glossary of jargon left on the cutting room floor after everyone else had finished. The result – scrum teams of 8-12 developers working back to back, pre-scrum whiteboard areas while its decided who is in what scrum and what they’ll do, scrum walls with analogue work tracking techniques and tools, space for 15-minute ‘stand-ups’ at the scrum walls for work planning, tracking and demonstration, and a need for relaxation space nearby from the stresses of making stuff that works. Scrum desking is allocated but the scrums themselves form and re-form every few months – and so they need to be flexible, but not as flexible as agile, and a different flexible from the next genre below. Who said workplace was easy?
Private offices for 1-25 people, access to shared space and amenities
There may well be an argument – or several – for this not to feature, but I’ll try and make the case. Flexible workspace – or ‘space as a service’ as the post-Regus offer has become is the combination of physical space, services offered and community enabled. Co-work is the practice of sharing physical workspace with people not of the same organisation. Co-work can take place anywhere, and indeed in its earlier guise was often called a ‘jelly’. Yet a certain character of workspace has been created by the mash-up of the two, with distinguishable features that corporates have tried to mimic to stay with it. It is essentially a combination of two formats – Traditional (mixed cellular), in the shape of the dedicated boxes that a company can rent – and Agile (ABW), with free access shared areas comprising desks and alternative settings. Of course this is a generalisation, there are a myriad of offers in the market, increasing all the time. The workspace also features a very relaxed almost domestic aesthetic and mode, enlivened by an over-zealous community manager, and usually allowing dogs and offering free beer.
I hope that wasn’t too painful. Anyone?