After several boom years in the tech sector, we've grown accustomed to seeing the next big thing in workplace design. From the now-quaint time of foosball tables, firemen's poles, and bouncy castles to the recent era of onsite, Michelin-starred chefs and certified masseuses, to the current wave of Starchitecture (Norman Foster at Apple, Gehry at Facebook, and BIG/Heatherwick at Google), Silicon Valley has been constantly evolving and re-inventing itself for the benefit of its workers and in the service of never-ending innovation - or so the story goes.
A recent Washington Post story on Facebook's new Frank Gehry-designed building entitled "What these photos of Facebook's new headquarters say about the future of work" offered a tour of the world's largest open-plan office, filled with over 3,000 identical desks reflective of the company's flat hierarchy and start-up mentality. The workplace, one of the employees quoted in the article says, eliminates the friction common in more traditional workplaces and allows employees greater access to and awareness of the information they need to get their jobs done and to help keep the company on its toes.
While this sort of environment is undoubtedly working for Facebook - as evidenced by its incredible revenue growth - for some, the sight of all those identical workstations calls into question tech's unwavering devotion to the one-size-fits-all workplace that's ubiquitous among valley companies and, increasingly, in non-tech companies as well.
Scan images of sexy offices in any design magazine and you will undoubtedly see hipster coffee bars, plush lounges, reclaimed-wood speakeasies, touch-screen walls and other spaces that workers in the rest of the drab corporate world can only dream of. Chances are, you will also see an ever-increasing panoply of yurts, havens, cabanas, cubbies, cozies, or whatever clever name tech companies and their designers have given to the little rooms where one goes to collaborate or focus. But you will rarely see images of the rest of the office space because at most tech companies, it's nearly identical and doesn't fit the Silicon Valley narrative of continuous innovation.
Furthermore, the backlash to the open office in popular culture grows by the month. A year ago, another Washington Post article, entitled "Google Got it Wrong: The Open Office Trend is Destroying the Workplace" was one of the paper's most linked-to articles in recent memory. And just this past month, a new FedEx ad poked fun at the lack of ability to get things done in an open office.
Does this backlash, which comes precisely at the same cultural moment as the opening of Facebook's "largest open-plan office in the world" mean the open-plan's hegemony is soon to be over? If so, what comes next for the workplace?
Unfortunately for you cube dwellers, the answer is not a return to private offices, with all the hierarchical and collaboration-killing connotations they bring, but rather to a more nuanced and balanced approach to the work environment. I contributed to a recent Fast Company story on the office of 2025 that speculated on four big changes coming to an office near you.
In a nutshell, the future workplace is going to be a lot more nuanced than a giant open floor plan. We know from research that a balanced workplace giving employees a choice in when and how to work is the key to productivity, but what do the concepts of balance and choice really mean in the 21st-century workplace?
We're currently designing the HQ offices for one of the world's leading hospitality brands, and we are finding that workplaces are becoming increasingly purposeful, highly customized and curated for their users, whether on a small scale among a specific team within an office, or across a global portfolio. This means flipping the thinking about the open office away from a one-size-fits-all approach to a more diverse and yes, somewhat more enclosed version of itself.
The goal is to take what's good about a private office: privacy, on-demand access to meeting space, the ability to customize to personal preferences, with what's good about open-plan spaces: flexibility, easy access to team members and information, faster decision-making, and equitable access to light and views.
By putting partitions (walls, in some cases, or panels in others) around groups of people - usually entire teams - and providing them with a suite of resources, groups of employees can better control and adapt to the rhythms of their typical and atypical days. With multiple individual and group work settings in a given footprint, teams of anywhere from 10-20 people can all be doing different things and not bothering each other, or they can all quickly pivot to focus on the same thing without bothering everybody else. Not everyone will have an assigned seat, but everything a team needs is at their fingertips rather than across a vast floor plate.
A side benefit from this team-studio approach is that the fruitless hunt for available meeting rooms is greatly reduced. Why roam the building or troll your company's meeting room reservations system to find a place for a team meeting when your team is already essentially working together in a meeting room of their own design?
At the end of the day, this is about de-scripting the workplace. What used to be the lobby, conference rooms, individual offices, cubicles, and a break room is now a collection of experiences that allows individuals unfathomable choice, environmental diversity, and a sense of control and ownership - all attributes of satisfied, productive, and engaged employees.