The open office plan has become extremely popular over the last few years, particularly riding the expansion of the start-up tech company culture that prized creating the opportunity for open collaboration. In fact, it is estimated that over 70% of modern offices now employ some kind of open format.
It was a logical reaction to the much longer-standing tradition of the cellular or closed office space plan, in which cubicles and partitions underlined individual focus and corporate hierarchy.
However, despite the best intentions of companies to pool teams together, concentrating differing talents around clusters of tables or long benches, the open-office format is simply not delivering.
The modern workplace needs to offer one attribute above all — flexibility. By offering only a highly socialized environment, the open office has failed to be flexible.
Yes, it’s egalitarian, but it simply doesn't cater to the very relevant need for personal privacy and focus, and the bottom line is that productivity is suffering as a result.
So, what’s the solution?
The agile working concept is the key to improving baseline focus, creativity, and output in the modern workplace. Put simply, it achieves this by not planning a top-down assumption of what people need. It looks at work as an activity, not as just the place. This means that the activity is front and center, and removing obstacles to activity-based working is how you let people work best.
The open office assumed that everyone would be amenable to a single style of working. Instead, agile aims to create an environment that is flexible enough for its occupants to mold the space to their changing needs so the potential for elite performance is expanded.
Importantly, this also means switching the agile model requires no top-down structural implementation in the company. Employees are free to focus on how they need to function best, then make it happen in their own way.
Design for Tech
In order to give employees the real sense that they can control their environment, the agile office focusses on the role of technology to empower functional agility. This means recognizing the real changes technology has made in the workplace while envisioning what lies ahead and providing the conditions for that change to be ushered in.
Firstly, this means moving away from the notion of the desktop computer. Laptop saturation and the ever-increasing use of mobile devices to output meaningful work has shifted the ergonomic necessities of the desktop and opened up huge possibilities for reimagined office layouts and how we choose to populate them with objects.
Without the inherent need to sit horizontally at a desk to type, we can accept the idea of sitting however we want. A desk is now a lap, or an outstretched arm cradling a screen. The ultimate portability of communication tech means standing or moving is a logical antidote to the constancy of sitting and its attendant health issues.
While the open office may share this similarity, its inherently confrontational (constantly socialized) nature means that device interaction is a less private occupation. The agile office, on the other hand, can provide any kind of space for occupants to seek privacy and refuge in order to fully immerse with technology when required.
This may sound like technological overstimulation, but in fact, it is increased productivity. A 1982 study by the British Psychological Research Digest found that the open plan office discouraged overall communication due to a lack of privacy, and a more recent US survey of over 42,000 workers noted the single most prominent complaint was, yes, no privacy.
If the feedback is the same for the last forty years, why adopt the open method?
Let Creativity Happen
Equipping workspaces with emerging technological developments lets employees find the best ways to adopt those technologies to their tasks. For example, individual or small group workspaces allow quick, spur-of-the-moment brainstorming, meeting, and presentation sessions to organically happen.
Effective, user-friendly tech should allow spontaneous contact with both colleagues and clients, liberating teams to iterate projects as the need arises instead of being overly defined by traditional meeting rooms and use scheduling needs.
The open office environment denied a realistic moment to laser focus on specific problems without sharing those issues with the surrounding crowd. This created confusion due to the potential for over collaboration, whereas agile respects the need for teams to split, form smaller units, regroup, or individualize.
The stats tell the story; in the US, of the companies that had started to adopt agile working conditions, 61% reported increased profits and 83% noted greater productivity. Agile sparked improved teamwork in 61% of cases, while the most heartening number is the 77% of employees reporting improved overall morale.
Happier employees are healthier, more creative, and more productive.
Remote or Present
The open office also failed to recognize the emerging fact that remote working is the norm. Nearly 50% of Americans spend at least a portion of their day operating out of the office, whether that be on-the-go or from home.
Tellingly, around 48% of employees report feeling less stressed due to flexible working. Thirty-seven percent even stated they would accept a pay cut if it meant they could work from home.
The agile workspace is designed to accommodate fluidity and as such welcomes the need for partial involvement with the space itself. Taking a quick huddle and heading back out means a huge improvement in the ability of sales teams to be truly mobile and client-present, not just "client-facing." Less office time means more quality interface to find solutions and create customer confidence.
The Future Is In Agile Offices
Agile reflects the changes in the technology we use to function effectively. It actually validates the use factors of tech and lets us wield it more effectively. The open office was an experiment in how we collaborate but failed to acknowledge how a space needs to serve the needs of all its occupants.
The agile office combats the siloed mentality of a single way of doing things. It removes mental barriers and physical walls while respecting the increasingly dynamic workflow both inside and outside the office environment.