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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Frye

The death of open offices is greatly exaggerated.

There's been a lot of chatter lately about open offices. Do they promote collaboration? Do they increase or decrease productivity? Should they die a quick death? 

Some people simply dislike open offices on a personal level. More concerning, a recent study from Harvard suggests open offices are not living up to the hype - or at least some people have interpreted the study that way. We shared the study on our social channels back in the summer, when it first came out, saying companies should pay attention to the new data and think about what kind of cultures and behaviors they want to create in their own offices. But some commentators are ready to throw in the towel, going back to private offices and work-at-home scenarios

But before we start redesigning every work space, throwing up walls and private offices, let's take a deep breath and remember: there's a reason companies shifted to the open office model in the first place. It wasn't just about saving money on real estate costs, though that certainly was a factor. If you ever walked into an IBM office in the 80s or 90s, you know what I'm talking about. Nothing kills creativity and morale like hallways flanked by private offices as far as the eye can see. 

It's also important to remember that the Harvard study is just one study. Before we start designing around it, let's dig into it. Only two companies were included in the study, and these companies had an extreme form of open office, an entirely open floor plan. The study authors themselves conclude that office design should be more nuanced. We completely agree. 

At CFID, we believe an open office should never just be open. You need quiet spaces for work that requires more intense concentration. You need a good mix of conference and meeting spaces for conversations that call for privacy. Open space for collaboration should always be balanced by closed spaces, every space having a purpose. And of course, every space always should be based on good principles of design. Things like easy navigation of spaces, appropriate lighting and a design that links to a company's brand and culture. A well-designed space is a place people enjoy working because of thoughtful design elements they may not even notice, like appropriate focal points that please the eye and connections to natural elements that promote wellness and productivity. 

Anecdotally, many of our clients' teams say they love their open office set ups. We think that's because a good office design starts with listening to the employees involved. How do they actually work? What kind of spaces do they need to succeed? Just as importantly, what does leadership want to achieve in terms of culture and work environment? You can't just tear down all the walls and expect more collaboration. Leaders have to set the tone and lead by example.

For our part, CFID will continue paying attention to the latest research about office design, and we will incorporate those ideas where they make sense. What we won't do is jump to extremes because one new study comes out. As in life, the best designs are all about balance.

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