Over the last few years, architectural layouts have all been diligently following the trend of shared work spaces and open floor plans. With the rise (and fall) of companies like WeWork, the architecture world has been left at an impasse. Do we go back to the cubicle lifestyle normalized by the thousands of offices in the industrial revolution era or do we move on to something new?
The rise of the open floor plan began much earlier than most of us know, starting with the work of incredible architects like Frank Lloyd Wright who believed that in order to break down social walls, you had to break down the physical ones. With his innovative design for the Johnson Wax Headquarters built in 1939, Wright transformed the office space.
Once this idea for an open space and shared life was born, both architects and office managers modified it for their own use and inevitably, much like a virus, it took on a life of its own.
While open offices spurred innovation, we have incorrectly linked these layouts with the concept of modernity. Nevertheless, with the spread of COVID19, the pain points inherent in open office space design have become increasingly apparent. While there have been multiple studies that prove that open office spaces are ineffective, we clench our fists and insist on continuing on the same path, terrified of being called old-fashioned.
Why are we still keeping them? Why aren´t offices scrapping an idea that has proven to decrease production and enhance frustration?
One of the reasons I believe office design has stagnated is because we see no other alternative route.
We have always had two options, either closed restrictive cubicles or wide open spaces.
So I will ask you and your design team to take on a challenge taught to me in architecture school;
Throw away your first idea and start fresh.
Think through a different lens of design.
No idea is wrong, it is the constant iteration that is important, don´t get stuck on something just because of the time it took you to make it.
Ask your team this question: What if we could take what we know really works out of both of these layouts to create something entirely new?
COVID19, much like other diseases that have pushed for transformation in the built world has forced us to rethink our daily work life. Maintaining high emotional and social connections while keeping physical distance is imperative in these times of uncertainty.
In order to do this successfully, architects and designers must involve the workforce in the process. Being an architect myself, I understand the instinct to believe you and your designs can solve the problem. But this specific problem is bigger than any group of similarly trained architects can solve.
This emergent problem brought forth by this rapidly spreading disease needs the help of the people in the workplace to successfully and quickly transform the way we work. How can we create spaces that don´t immediately require a home office confinement to stop the spread of this or any future disease that may come our way? How do we create resilience in our workspace?
One approach, while it may send the C suite executives into a speech about the bottom line, must be considered in times of crisis.
What if we spread out office spaces to maintain a healthy distance between each worker? While this would inevitably reduce the maximum use of space, it would lead to a healthier and more productive workforce.
By creating semi-private spaces where a team can easily interact, all while keeping proper space between other teams reduces the risk of exponential infection for this virus or any other that may come.
While this is not a perfect solution by any means, my intention with this has never been to propose a solution, my intention is to start a discussion where multidisciplinary teams can take on the challenge of rearranging their own spaces for transformation.
Is there a way we can create flexible spaces that can be easily transformed into private/public spaces? What if we incorporate the modulation used in the health industry to quickly build treatment centers? What about germ resistant materials?
This complex problem has just begun rear its head and show the inevitable repercussions it will create in the office space, and while it may feel paralyzing at this moment, times of great uncertainty can also lead to moments of unexpected creativity.
Let´s step ahead of the curve and transform where and how we work, together.