From quiet libraries to convivial collaborative spaces to private office phone booths, the office of the future merges myriad work environments under one roof.

Some of us remember the sense of liberation that followed the death of the cubicle farm, and the emergence of open office floor plans. Cubicles seemed like cells — beige, bland, uniform, sad. The aesthetic? Office Dystopia. Then came the open office, and it felt like a party. Communicating with other humans did not require either entering another cell or welcoming a colleague into yours. Instead, you just talked.

But as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, the open office is increasingly out of favor, just as cubicles were by the 2000s. Among other things, people want more privacy. And they desire more flexibility with work environments, a development born out of the mobile nature of today’s workforce. As the way we work changes, so too must the office; offering just one approach, like the open office, no longer appeals to most workers.

The question: If the open office evolves to complement the way people work today, what will it look like?

The Office Merges With the Rest of Your Life

“What’s next is a synthesis of a variety of factors. It’s a blurring of the traditional distinction between work and non-work environments,” says Jim Truhan, senior workplace strategist at IA Interior Architects, an international architectural design firm. “The default mode of business today is mobility. The shift that is happening is ‘it’s not my space’ or ‘me space’ but ‘we space.’ The entire office is a tool for productivity. Mobility is the key.”

The office of today and beyond will resemble the coffee shop where you sometimes work remotely as well as your house; the co-working space down the street, where you take advantage of open-seating environments and private nooks for concentrated focus. Even library environments — expansive rooms, big desks, and extreme quiet — find purchase in offices. Cubicles? They might emerge here and there, as people erect portable (and temporary) walls around spaces for the sake of episodic focus and head-down solo work.

The office, in other words, will look more like a pastiche of the pleasing, organic spaces in the rest of your life, rather than a dull, uniform, and entirely separate entity.

Just a decade ago, most offices were about 70 percent open office and 30 percent other spaces, like kitchens and lounge areas, says Tish Kruse, principal and senior director of strategy at IA Interior Architects. But that ratio now is about fifty-fifty, and the balance is rapidly swinging towards the majority of space being different kinds of spaces: the soundproof office phone booths for calls, the lounges, the kitchens, the collaborative areas.

“One thing we see with every client is people want choice. That word comes up all the time. Limiting employees to one kind of work environment now is unacceptable,” says Kruse. “Everybody now is used to choice.”

Cuningham Group Revamps Open Office for Mobility and Flexibility

cuningham group woman walking up the stairs second floor

Cuningham’s redesigned Minneapolis headquarters involved a central staircase, a variety of conference rooms, and informal spots for quick conversations.

Mobility and choice were animating forces behind the redesign of the headquarters for Cuningham Group, an international architectural firm based in Minneapolis. Cuningham has been in the same building since the early 1990s, an old mattress factory converted into an office. The original floor plan? Mostly open office on four floors with offices ringing the space.

Last year, however, the company moved all 185 Minneapolis employees to a temporary space for six months while the headquarters was revamped. Cuningham increasingly counsels clients against pure open offices and was eager to craft for themselves the kind of hybrid space they designed for clients.

cuningham group informal space beside windows

Giving employees access to windows was central to the Cuningham’s redesign.

Cuningham moved back into its historic building, and now nobody has an office. As a result, everybody can see outside. Cuningham sprinkled “teaming spaces” throughout the office and introduced a quiet lounge. Conference rooms come in varying sizes, designed for different kinds of meetings. But they all share close attention to design and aesthetics; none of them are afterthoughts. Employees find bar seating, banquettes, and small kitchens throughout the space. Desks and furniture are modular and adjustable — all desks, for example, accommodate both stand-up and sit-down options.

“Everybody is mobile here,” said Pete Mikelson, Cuningham Group senior associate. “You can stay at your desk for focused work, or pick up your laptop and go to a quiet lounge. We have lounge chairs with privacy shields. We are trying to create a space that accommodates all situations without making compromises. It’s important that if you’re taking away privacy and workspace size, which happened with the new design, you balance that out with a lot of other different kinds of spaces.”

They Tried the Cubicle Farm. They Cheered When It Was Over.

Most Cuningham employees never experienced the cubicle farms of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but the temporary space they occupied for six months during the renovation was just that. The novel experience, from open office to cubicle farm to contemporary hybrid layout, enriched employees’ evaluation of the new office, Mickelson says. Among other things, spending time in cubicles helped sharpen employees’ understanding of the importance of design. Good design improves productivity, happiness, and collaborative efforts. Bad design stifles all of the above.

“That cubicle space was sensory deprivation,” says Mikelson. “Sitting at your desk, you would not know there were 185 people around you. It was solitary in a negative way. People wanted to see human faces again.”

Cuningham’s new office nurtures even more face-to-face interaction than the previous design. With so many people moving around all day, people encounter one another more often. Spontaneous meetings happen.

cuningham large office windows open plan office

The redesign of Cuningham’s headquarters forced everybody to an old-school cubicle farm for six months. They could not wait to return to the new digs.

“It’s like the analogy of your house. You cook in your kitchen, watch TV in the den, sleep in the bedroom. In offices today, you aren’t just sitting at your desk waiting for people to come to you,” says Kruse. “It’s good to move around. Healthy. More productive. The way we work now is much different than it used to be when we were sitting in cubicles.”

Cubicles are mostly gone, and the open-office format that replaced them, which thrived for two decades, is on its way out as well. But the best offices of today and tomorrow aren’t exactly throwing away the open office. Instead, they offer the open arrangement as one among many environments within a single office footprint. Quiet, library-like spaces. Soundproof phone booths. Convivial, collaborative rooms. Private spaces for head-down focus. And yes, open-office floorplans, too. You might even find a few cubicles scattered around.

No matter the arrangement of spaces, one thing is sure: The office no longer will stand apart as a separate, homogenous entity revolving entirely around productivity. Instead of bland uniformity, it will embrace diversity.


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