These architects popularized the open office. Now they say ‘the open office is dead’

These architects popularized the open office. Now they say ‘the open office is dead’

Clive Wilkinson Architects championed open offices for big companies such as Google and Microsoft. Now, as the pandemic has led to a massive overhaul of work life, they envision something completely different.

As a longtime designer of office spaces for big companies such as Google, Microsoft, and the advertising firm TBWA\Chiat\Day, Los Angeles-based Clive Wilkinson Architects has helped define how offices around the world look and feel. One of its biggest innovations was a push toward the open office floor plan—the big, wallless room full of clicking and chattering desk workers that optimized the square footage of offices and democratized the workplace.

But for the actual office workers using those famous open offices, the experience has been less than ideal. They’re noisy and lack privacy, they reinforce sexist behavior, and they even make people quit their jobs.

Now, as the pandemic leads many companies to dramatically rethink how their offices function, Clive Wilkinson Architects has laid out a redesign strategy to achieve a more diverse, more multifunctional office. It starts with ditching the open floor plan.

“The open office is dead,” says Amber Wernick, an associate at Clive Wilkinson Architects. “We really see that being one of the biggest changes to come out of this pandemic and the way people are going to feel coming back into the workplace after working from home for over a year.”

Wernick and her colleague Caroline Morris have spent the past several months surveying clients and researching office design approaches to get ahead of what companies and their employees will want from office space as they gradually shift away from working at home. Based on feedback from clients in industries ranging from technology to consumer products, they’ve created a 12-piece workplace kit of parts that defines the different kinds of spaces most offices will need moving forward.

“We strongly believe that the one-size-fits-all office cannot exist in the future of work, with even stronger reasons now than there were pre-pandemic,” says Morris. “A homogenous solution doesn’t address the variety, the wide range of needs that each employee has. You end up with an incredibly flawed workplace strategy and an incredibly flawed workplace.”

These three types of spaces in the kit of parts exemplify the biggest changes coming to offices in the post-pandemic era.

The Library

Inspired by the openness of the open floor plan but designed to address its noise and commotion, the Library is a collaborative, unassigned working space that combines large working tables, individual nooks, and cushy chairs for quiet focus. Like a train’s quiet car, a suggested no-talking policy helps reduce distraction.

“It addresses some of the biggest issues of the open office that we would hear from our clients when we started working with them time after time, which is, ‘The open office is flawed, and I can’t get any work done,’” says Morris.

So far, the concept has proven surprisingly appealing to their clients. “I was expecting desks to still be a popular vote with some of our more traditional clients, but the library has just been overwhelmingly popular across the board,” Wernick says. “Not so much the traditional desks, which is really showing us that people are ready for a change.”

The Plaza

After months of Zoom meetings and lonely, couchbound workdays, office workers are ready to interact with their coworkers in real life. The Plaza is a kitchen and lunchroom type space that has all the office’s food-related infrastructure and seating to create a lively hub of activity. Like the kitchen of a home, it’s a main space within the office where social interaction can happen once again.

“We’re hearing over and over again from our clients that that’s one of the missing pieces of working from home, and that’s one of the things that’s going to drive people back to the office,” Morris says. “It’s a place you can go and fill up your cup of coffee and run into a colleague or meet someone there, and have those spontaneous encounters that you really can’t have virtually.”

It’s a turn away from the trend in large offices to have multiple small kitchenettes throughout the building or floor, giving workers in one area a nearby place to quickly get a drink or grab their lunch from a fridge and go back to their desk.

“We really try to get away from that altogether, and bring people to one plaza because it really just gets people out of their little neighborhood or corner of the office and forces them to come together with a larger group of people outside of their immediate team,” says Wernick. “It’s this concept of functional inconveniences. You actually want those social zones to be a little bit inconvenient to get to, and in turn, it really forces people to come together that normally would never interact.”

The Avenue

Serendipitous interactions can happen anywhere, especially if there’s room. The Avenue reconfigures the typical straightaway office hallway to have nooks, seating, and barlike spaces where passing colleagues can stop and chat without getting in the way.

“So it’s not just a walkway. It becomes a place for interaction, with touchdown tables and stools and maybe there are booths located off of them,” says Wernick. “There are places where when you leave a meeting you can have a conversation with coworkers instead of immediately having to go back to your neighborhood.”

The kit of parts is now being used by Clive Wilkinson Architects during its visioning exercises with clients. Wernick and Morris say clients across the spectrum are beginning to integrate these ideas into how they’re planning to welcome workers back to the office. Though not every office will need to use every one of the 12 areas outlined in the kit, most are adopting at least a few of its parts for a more diverse space that makes the open plan seem like a remnant from the distant past.

“The pandemic has really accelerated a lot of the ideas and concepts that our clients have been asking for for decades now,” Wernick says. “Once they were forced to work from home and be away from the office I think it opened a lot of peoples’ minds to what the office could be.”

Article by Nate Berg as seen in Fast Company Magazine
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