Covid-19 and the Demise of the Open Plan Office

Think about the office you typically work in. How close are you to other people? If you’re in an open plan office, the seating arrangement will be two to three desks (or more) in one row, and then another row of desks facing you. The only thing that separates you from your co-workers is either nothing, or a small, low barrier that serves no particular purpose.

Typically, you’re within three feet / one meter of each other.

In the age of COVID-19 and social distancing, the open plan office begins to feel like a scary place to occupy.

Even before COVID-19, there had never been any real evidence that an open plan office provided an advantage to those who were forced to work in them. If you asked HR or managers why they needed an open plan office, the answer was that it encouraged communication and collaboration. This reason was reinforced in offices that went to Agile, because having teams sitting next to each other would result in better software projects.

This long touted benefit was quoted by most companies despite many studies showing that open plan offices did none of those things. In fact, recent studies had shown that open plan offices reduce communications, simply because people found ways of shutting themselves off from their co-workers whenever they could. Harvard Business Review published a study last year that said open offices produced less meaningful interactions. (https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-truth-about-open-offices)

Many common assumptions about office architecture and collaboration are outdated or wrong. Although the open-office design is intended to encourage us to interact face-to-face, it gives us permission not to. The “accidental collisions” facilitated by open offices and free spaces can be counterproductive. In many instances, “copresence” via an open office or a digital channel does not result in productive collaboration.

The article was also frank in calling out the real purpose of the open plan office.

If keeping real estate costs in check is the priority, leaders should be honest about that with themselves and their employees. Most office redesigns aren’t undertaken to promote collaboration.

The open plan office had always been accompanied by the perils of enhancing the spread of flu and colds during the winter months. Vice quoted this study in their article published in 2016.(https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/z43nby/is-your-open-office-making-you-sick)

One study of more than 1,800 Swedish workers found that people in open plan offices were nearly twice as likely to take short term sick leave (of one week or less) than those who worked in private offices.

For years, organizations have seen the spread of cold and flu through an office as an acceptable risk. Although attempts have been made by some to mitigate the costs by encouraging employees to be vaccinated, presumably this was because the cost was less than redesigning an office layout, not because they truly valued anyone’s health.

However, this time around we’re not talking about the spread of the seasonal flu or a cold. In the age of a global pandemic, it becomes very obvious that an open plan office does nothing to protect the people who work there, either physically or psychologically. After the pandemic resolves itself (however that happens), a traumatized work force will have seen the havoc the right type of virus can really inflict, and they will be less keen to tolerate current office layouts just so a company can save money.

Either way, the prospects of having to go back to working in an open plan office will fill most people with fear. No one will relish the idea of being shoved into close quarters with a co-worker who has questionable hygiene standards.

I imagine that organizations everywhere will try to work around the stark reality of having to reconsider the usefulness of their much beloved office architecture. Many will probably dole out hand sanitizer (if they can get any), hire people to regularly wipe down the desks, chair, phones and computers. People will be encouraged to wear face masks.

This will quickly become untenable for most people, who faced with the prospect of catching any type of virus, or doing something else, will probably choose their own health over an organisation’s desire to save on their real estate costs.

But what replaces the open plan office, and hot desking, and collaboration and communication and all of the other buzz words foisted upon the modern workplace with no real regards for the actual science or studies? What would make workers feel safe again?

For a start, cubicles will make a comeback because much like the sneeze guard at salad bars, they help prevent viruses and germs from landing on other people. Will they cut down the rate of a virus transmitting itself entirely? Probably not. But at least when Gary from Accounting coughs, his disgusting virus infected mucus will be landing on a cubicle wall, not the person sitting opposite him, or beside him.

Hot desking will die a much deserved death. Is anyone really going to want to sit at a desk and use a computer that’s been used by many other people? With studies showing that SARS-COV-2 (the name of the virus that causes Covid-19) can survive on plastic and metal surfaces for up to 72-hours, no one is going to want to risk using a keyboard that has been touched by dozens of people throughout the week. A general elevation of people’s concern about catching a virus from someone else will mean people want to move back to assigned desks.

Agile may seem slightly suspect after all of this. Why would anyone want to attend a daily stand-up, or a five hour retrospective so they can all share what they’re doing (and possibly share their germs)? Agile may become a method used for remote workers, but regarded as unhygienic and unsafe for people in offices.

On a brighter note, your previous co-workers who spent their time leaving their dirty coffee cups on their desk for weeks, openly sneezed and coughed without covering their nose or mouth, and bitched if you used hand sanitizer because they didn’t like the smell will become the social pariahs of the office. Social distancing? Try public shaming.

Finally, introverts may find that they become the prized office workers of the future. Extroverts who spent their time slowly losing their minds while remote working, and who maybe weren’t as productive as they used to be, may find their lofty position in the workplace has been taken over by introverts. Who were kind of made for this new way of working. Employers may start to see introverts as a benefit, rather than a liability. Who else would be happy working quietly in a cubicle, forgoing all of that communication and collaboration stuff unless really necessary?

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