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Will Developers Be Forced To Close The Door On Open Concept Offices?

While 70% of U.S. offices now offer open workspace, studies show employees still prefer the quiet of private offices, and landlords are taking the cue.

A recent study conducted by CommercialCafé found that more than 60% of 2,107 full-time employees between the ages 22 and 40 prefer to work in a private or home office.

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While one-size-fits-all, open-plan layouts have ruled office designs in recent years, developers are responding to employee sentiments in favor of closed offices by embracing some of the sector's more traditional roots. The trend now gaining traction has been dubbed “activity-based workplace design," which prioritizes both flexibility and privacy.

Studio Fōr founding principal Fauzia Khanani said her firm is already designing offices with dedicated quiet spaces and phone rooms for clients. Many are even opting to sacrifice bigger conference rooms to gain a larger number of small breakout rooms instead.

“The industry as a whole is adjusting to accommodate these desires, especially in existing office spaces. Free-standing breakout spaces that accommodate anywhere from one to five people are becoming readily available in the market. An additional change that we are seeing is that workstation partition heights are increasing. We aren’t quite back to the ‘cubicle’ style workstation, but are somewhere in between the very open space plan and cubicles,” Khanani said.

Adjusting To The New, New Normal 

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Employees' desire for closed workspace is a trend that is carrying into the co-working sector as well. According to a CBRE survey, office buildings with one-third of their space dedicated to co-working are more likely to lead to better capital value. Any more than this, however, could negatively impact the long-term value of the property.

"This story is still being written, but there will be a breaking point where investors become uncomfortable with the amount of co-working space in their buildings. Based on our recent Americas Investor Intentions Survey, investors see this as being about a third of the building’s leasable space, but the jury is still out on what the percentage actually is,” CBRE Americas President of Advisory and Transaction Services Scott Marshall said.

According to the Association for Psychological Science, investors and tenants may have reason to feel wary about having too much co-working or open office space. Research shows open office can have an adverse effect on employees mental health. Those in open office have been found to have higher stress levels, difficulties concentrating and remaining motivated, and tend to take more sick days throughout the year.

Still, the preference for private space versus open collaboration rooms can vary greatly depending on the tenant, Marshall said.

"Some tenants prefer the more collaborative environments with open or bench-style seating," Marshall said. "Other tenants — like law firms — need more confidentiality, and prefer a mix of open, bench-style seating and enclosed private offices."

While open concept offices and co-working spaces can foster collaboration, they offer little in the way of privacy and can make it difficult for employees to focus due to noise levels. Approximately 64% of workers surveyed by CommercialCafé said constant interruptions by co-workers was the most disruptive factor in the office, while another 60% found general noise to be the most distracting.

“There is a desire to continue implementing the open plan concept despite these recent findings, but clients are asking us [as] designers, to figure out ways to mitigate the need for private and quiet spaces for meetings and focus,” Khanani said.

Personal Space Is Shrinking

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Adding to these issues is the fact that the average amount of space per office worker has dropped significantly in recent years. Between 2010 and 2012, average space decreased from 225 SF to 176 SF, the New York Times reports

Space has since shrunk even more. More than 30% of CommercialCafé respondents said they have between 50 SF and 99 SF of space in which to work, while another 26% have even less.

“I believe the desire to have more privacy in open concept is due in part to shrinking office space. In general, as overall office square footages shrink due to high real estate costs, there is a direct correlation [between] the size of employees desk areas. There is less personal space and thus, less privacy. It’s harder for some people to focus in an open concept plan and decreasing desk areas doesn’t help due to [the] diminished proximity between desks,” Khanani said.

This desire to regain some privacy does not mean millennials are unwilling to interact at the office.    

“Employees understand the importance of interaction with their co-workers. Rather, there is a need for this interaction to be done as a stand-alone part of their working day, within collaboration rooms,” CommercialCafé Marketing Communications Specialist Diana Sabau said.