The Collaborative Office – Back to the Future

Don’t we all covetdraper office Don Draper’s office; from the Danish Modern furniture to the liquor cabinet, always stocked with Canadian Club? Ahhh… the opulent lifestyle of a Madison Avenue Advertising Executive.   open office copy
If Don was Creative Director at Sterling Cooper today, imagine how decadently lavish his office would be.  Actually it will probably look something like the photo on the left.  No private secretary.  His desk just one of many in a large room.

Today architects design open-space-offices.  Architects sing the mantra that Mellennials want their offices to be as open and easy to operate as mobile devises.  Corporate bosses declare open-space-offices stimulate collaboration and therefore productivity.  The reality is it saves money.  Lease space is not cheap.  Since 1970 space allotted to each employee shrank from 500 square feet 200 square feet.

Audiovisual trade magazines are filled with stories cautioning if an integrator is not providing huddle and collaboration solutions it is destined for extinction. And there may be some truth to that. So AV manufacturersd and integrators are responding to the needs of these modern workspaces

But there are skeptics, mainly human behavior scientists, questioning the validity of the open space. Even some architects are raising eyebrows over claims of enhanced productivity.  Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.

Architect giant Gensler commissioned extensive research to explore the affect of open spaces on productivity. The Gensler study, Focus on the Workplace,  found productivity is enhanced by four factors; collaboration, focus, learning and socializing. With such a strong emphasis on collaboration, the other factors are being ignored.  The most significant factor in workplace effectiveness is not collaboration, it’s individual focus work; the ability of a worker to focus on the task.  Yet focus is the workplace environment’s least supported activity.   Workplace strategies that sacrifice individual focus in pursuit of collaboration will result in decreased effectiveness for both.   Gensler questions if the move away from individual space has gone too far?

Now some audiovisual pros are questioning  the validity of open offices to spawn productivity.  In the Fall 2015 issue of IT/AV Report, columnist Shonan Noronha asks; Open Spaces: What are your Concerns?” 

Of the seven AV professionals featured, there is only one skeptic.   Designer Joey D’Angelo at Charles M. Salter Associates is very astute.  Joey condemns open space as, “the bane of sanity and productivity.”  I love that line.  Yet he recognizes that open offices, “are still a boon to our industry because they increase the demand for small and medium-sized  presentation rooms.”   Joey goes on to mention a trend I first noticed when my mother-in-law started using Skype.  The days of hardware-based  videoconference codecs are numbered.  If you have Polycom stock… sell it now.

So how does this affect AV?  For smart integrators, this is a great opportunity.  Most people cannot maximize concentration in a noisy environment.  Six people huddled around a display sharing videos and videoconferencing is right next to your desk is noisy. Rather than larger meeting rooms with high functionality, there is a trend for more easy to use smaller rooms.  And there is greater convergence of AV and IT.

Other requirements may be foreign to some integrators; scheduling systems, sound masking, voice commands, cloud-based applications, soft videoconferencing codecs, line array speakers, beam forming microphones, alliances with furniture manufacturers.

It was Picasso, who observed, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” In other words, sometimes you want to be alone, and your workplace should allow for that.

As is always the case, it is basic Darwinism.  The smart AV integrators that can learn and adapt to the changing environment will be the companies that evolve and survive. 

For additional information:

“The Rise of the New Groupthink”  New York Times.  Challenges the current open workplace trend and pointed to the lost benefits of concentration and focus in the workplace because of open plan environments

“Collaborative Workspaces: Not All They’re Cracked Up To Be”    Atlantic Magazine.  Touched on individual workstyles and the need for spaces that meet the needs of the individual worker, whether an introvert, extrovert or somewhere in between.

Best and worst office designs for employees   Washington Post

What’s an Open Office Plan?   Omnirax Furniture

“Monolithic insanity” & other notes on office spaces   The American CEO

Traditional versus Open Office Design: A Longitudinal Field Study    Aoife Brennan, Jasdeep S. Chugh and Theresa Kline     Research in open office design has shown that it is negatively related to workers’ satisfaction with their physical environment and perceived productivity

The Open Office Trap    The New Yorker  An historical look at open offices


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