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Is the Open Office Concept a Thing of the Past?

February 3, 2021

employees in open office

The need for social distancing is sure to amplify many pre-pandemic questions about the efficiency of open offices.

The open-concept office is widespread in corporate America, though it has taken some hits in recent years. The movement first gained traction in the 1970s and remains a go-to setup for many businesses around the country.

The reason behind this popularity is that these layouts maximize the use of space and can save on costs, plus spur collaboration. The idea is that workers can’t hide in their offices all day and must interact with colleagues, improving teamwork and productivity.

But research suggests that these setups sometimes do the exact opposite, as employees learn new ways of avoiding each other and the distractions that come with an open office. COVID-19 is also creating fundamental issues for the concept, given that physical barriers are crucial for maintaining social distancing.

Here’s a look at the present and future of the open office—and how commercial real estate owners can adapt to businesses’ ever-changing needs.

Despite their promise, open offices might not drive interaction

Even before the pandemic, there were growing questions about the viability of the open-concept office. Managers noted that employees could deflect interaction in an open setting just as quickly as they could in a cubicle or closed office by using headphones, pretending to be busy, and avoiding eye contact.

In fact, the Harvard Business Review reports that some firms have witnessed face-to-face interactions drop by 70% after switching to open offices, suggesting that this type of space isn’t meeting its objective. Employees make up for the decrease in face-to-face interaction through electronic communication, despite having the ability to speak in-person.

Keep in mind that these numbers are from before COVID-19. Living through a pandemic has changed office interaction even further or eliminated it altogether, at least in the short term.

The impact of COVID-19

Of course, we live in a different world than we did a year ago. And it doesn’t look like we’ll return to normal for some time. Even after a successful COVID-19 vaccine rollout, we could see new strains of the virus make the office a stressful place to be. 

There are currently social distancing protocols in most offices that make collaboration more challenging. Physical barriers are necessary to stop the spread of the virus within the workplace, further reducing the viability of open offices. For example, many desks or workspaces now have plexiglass barriers between them. Employees can see each other but not interact closely, defeating an open office’s intended purpose.

There’s also the possibility of many employees demanding a closed-off work environment as they return to the office. Workers want to stay healthy, which means limiting the extent to which they physically interact with others.

What these changes mean for CRE

From a commercial real estate perspective, adaptability is essential. We can no longer assume that companies will want open-concept offices because they may be an outdated or even dangerous format as workplaces reopen.

CRE owners should be aware that organizations will want different things from their office space and maintain the flexibility to adapt. This could include renovating space to allow for more room between employees or, in more extreme cases, building out exclusively closed offices.

Organizations that continue to use open concepts need physical barriers in place, at least near-term. Plexiglass might work in some situations, while other offices might want cubicles or other barriers to further separate their staff. Then there are cleaning protocols, foot-traffic procedures, and growing demand for HVAC improvements. Since the virus primarily spreads through airborne transmission, a new focus has been placed on buildings’ air quality. For a thorough rundown of these safety issues and potential property improvements, read our previous blog.

We’re going through an unprecedented period of change in the traditional office setting. Keeping up to date on the trends could be the difference between renting a space and having it sit empty.

What the future holds

We’re not exactly sure how office space will evolve nor how durable specific trends will be. Much depends on the vaccines’ efficacy at fighting new variants of the virus and what particular companies and their employees prefer. If workers remain uncomfortable returning to open-concept offices, organizations and building owners will have little choice but to rework the spaces.

Commercial real estate owners should be aware that businesses could be looking for different things in the coming months and years and stay willing to adapt. More flexible setups — or owners who are willing and able to renovate to meet individual preferences — will attract new tenants faster. But certain offices in select areas may struggle to attract renters, regardless of the setup.

One thing is for sure: 2021 will be a pivotal year that will continue to introduce novel challenges in the commercial real estate landscape. And the ability to adapt will remain essential.

Morris Southeast Group has its eyes on these CRE trends and is dedicated to keeping our readers, clients, and colleagues informed. For more information on trends in office space or to lease or to find a property that is right for you, contact us at 954.474.1776. You can also reach Ken Morris directly at 954.240.4400 or by email at kenmorris@morrissegroup.com

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