A Gensler-designed open office in New York City combines both lounge-style seating for informal meetings, conference space, and traditional seated desks.

The conversion to primarily open-office floor plans over the past decade is now reaching adolescence, and like many revolutions has created problems as well as possibilities, panelists said at a ULI New York event in February. Industry experts from three tech companies that want to attract the best talent available described what they are seeing in the marketplace based on their considerable and far-flung office experiences.

Tom Vecchione, principal and design director at Gensler, cited a recent Harvard Business School study that showed a decline in both interpersonal interaction and productivity in open office settings. Open floor plans initially seemed like “the natural environment” for the focus of tech companies on “agility, flexibility, innovation,” he said.

“Have we lost aspects of focus, accountability, hierarchy that might still be relevant?” Vecchione asked. He compared this reconsideration of open offices to the response to postwar suburbanization, saying, “Fifty years later we’re stepping back and saying, well, maybe those weren’t all the right things that we did.”

The participants were not remotely ready to write off the open office, but they did stress that it is a model that requires care and innovation in application.

Brett Hautop, senior director of global design and build at LinkedIn, said his organization has found patterns prompting reconsideration of the use of space in its own offices. Allocations of space at LinkedIn were heavily skewed, he said, with open space greatly outweighing closed space.

“But then if you look at desk utilization rates in open spaces, it’s lower than anticipated; and utilization rates in closed rooms are really high,” he said.

A return to older models is not the solution, he said. “For us, there’s no solution involved in which everybody gets their own closed space, because we’re trying to create a dynamic environment that has a culture that people want to be a part of, that has energy. Our solution is to offer a variety of choices of workspaces on demand, such as soundproof telephone booths, four-person meeting rooms, or open collaborative spaces.”

One tweak to the open-office model emulates spaces that are open and yet suppress noise and distraction: libraries.

“One of the big things we’ve been adding everywhere is library spaces,” said Hautop. “It’s basically another place to work, but there’s no talking. It’s super simple and basic, and it’s what many people say they want. Libraries as a counterpoint to the open office, that percentage of space is increasing.”

Paul Darrah, director of real estate for Google in New York City, also sees no signs that open office space is being abandoned. However, he does see a need to think closely and continuously about the configuration of that space.

Darrah cited a Desk First initiative, which is an opportunity to continually innovate the workplace. “We take a floor at a time and we iterate the design, so each year we expand and develop another floor and we tweak and refine the design.

“Each iteration we learn something new,” he said, comparing the approach to the rings of a tree, providing the ability to gauge when a configuration was put into place and the results it produced. A recurrent prime consideration is where employees are most productive—a desk, a meeting room, or some other space altogether.”

On stage from left to right: Tom Vecchione, design director and principal, Gensler; Brett Hautop, senior director of global design and build, LinkedIn; Elizabeth Haight, vice president of operations, Mathworks; and Paul Darrah, director of real estate NYC, Google, speaking at Gensler’s office at 1700 Broadway.

Darrah stressed the importance of the “neighborhood” in the workplace and that it be a comprehensible and effective size.

“The sea of white sadness—which is the perpetual view of the open office plan—doesn’t work,” he said. “So, neighborhoods are now 40 to 60 people. We are breaking them up with space that enables you to see a collab room, know that it’s empty, find your colleague, and sit down to have a five-minute meeting, without having to book the room.”

Just as in residential development, there is no ideal neighborhood size, so the quest to tweak these environments is ongoing. Office space is “no different than a city street,” Darrah said. “Retail is either successful or not successful, and the street changes on a cycle. If we notice that space isn’t getting leveraged or utilized, we need to revisit what was the goal, what was the purpose, and reshape it so it does work. So that’s how we’ve evolving space.”

Against the Tide

Elizabeth Haight, vice president of Mathworks, says her organization is going against the tide in offering an old-fashioned amenity—a closed office for all employees. “Everybody gets an office, they’re all the same size, so it’s easy to manage the space,” she said. “Once it’s built, it’s built. I can move anybody anywhere without any retrofitting.”

But the company’s buildings are not cloisters: they offer a variety of amenity spaces, and all offices have glass fronts. “There are a variety of spaces people can work in, but we do find almost the opposite of that—everybody’s in their office,” she said. She emphasized the utility of this model for the kind of work that Mathworks employees are doing, which requires solitary concentration. “We hire knowledge workers we feel really need to get into the flow to develop this product,” she said.

This is not merely a formula for work; it is also a great recruiting tool, Haight said. “Staff feel valued,” she said. “You come in, you get an office.”

Hautop noted that LinkedIn projects rely on constantly shifting teams, with the number of employees working on a given project changing as projects progress and are completed. A rigid environment would destroy interactivity. “When we have a hundred people and give them each a desk, it doesn’t matter how hard we try—the first person and the 100th person never really have an ability to easily interact with each other because there is too much distance between them.”

The challenge sometimes is to create an environment that is flexible without feeling impersonal, he said. We have open seating, he noted, but teams that are working together have designated neighborhoods.

“We aim to create an environment where everyone can be together with unassigned seats, yet they don’t feel like they’re on someone else’s territory, invading, when they decide on a place to put down their laptop. We try to make sure to give people choices in workspaces. There’s always a place for them to go that helps them complete their task at that moment. It’s a good balance, but it’s not always easy and there are sometimes problems.”

Early experiments with unassigned seating have not been immediately successful. He noted that allowing completely mobile desk arrangements sometimes resulted in chaos resembling an architecture school studio, and in other cases some spaces once arranged, remained static for the life of the space, in spite of the built-in mobility of the desks.

Subtler changes can be essential, Hautop said.

“We have furniture that’s swapped out and changed between floors; we have local artist programs where we rotate the art between floors—just things to make people who are in the space feel like there’s some sort of new energy or something new to look at, something new to talk about,” he said.

The company has also enabled easy rearrangement of items on walls with movable panels and Z clips in many offices to allow teams to create their own identity in their space and to bring utility to whatever activity is taking place there.

Other principles of the open office remain highly prized. Hautop noted that the quest continues for floor-to-floor heights of 15 to 16 feet (4.6 to 4.9 m) in urban spaces and a constant interest in creating simple and scrutable stairway connections in tall buildings to knit a workplace together without recourse to elevators.

Maximizing Use of Space

Panelists noted that for suburban employees, going out for lunch can turn into a multiple-hour distraction, making provision of cafeterias and amenities vital for keeping them in the office. But they have begun to wonder what to do with those spaces outside of mealtimes, when they often grow desolate.

Darrah returned to the theme of the effective use of space. “How do we take and leverage those spaces? Because they are excellent spaces,” he said. Several panelists cited the importance of programming and ensuring that company leaders make clear the importance of using that space by using it themselves. The spaces themselves become a useful tool for drawing others into the office, whether it is located in an isolated suburban campus or an urban office building.

It is one step in what should remain an omnidirectional search for ideas, Darrah said. “We need to look outside of corporate real estate for the next inspiration,” he said. “What are universities doing to create compelling workspaces? What are hotels doing? What are other inspirations?”

Retrofitting Aging Offices

Many older traditional office buildings are available but are difficult to configure for contemporary sensibilities, panelists noted, yet the constant tweaking espoused by tech employers has proved influential.

Darrah said other employers are taking note of Google’s experiments. “Every single developer in New York is visiting Silicon Valley to look at what Google and others have created to understand what they need to do to make their buildings more compelling for tech. It’s the open plan, as well as variable space with room for concentration and quiet that has become the new norm,” he said. “The landlords are getting smarter now about placemaking.”

The effort by employers to gauge and maximize productivity can involve a variety of metrics, but in the age of employee mobility and relatively liberal work-from-home policies, one very practical test is simply where employees choose to be.

“I don’t know how you measure productivity, but we certainly can measure employee happiness and well-being, and that then enables attraction and retention of talent,” Hautop said.

Darrah offered a similar view. “Believe it or not, people want to come into work,” he said. “We think it’s because they like the places we’ve created for them to work and connect with colleagues.”