Yes, COVID-19 really is destroying the open office

This is the beginning of the end of an office design workers love to hate.

October 19, 2020

By Nate Berg for Fast Company

It’s been embraced for saving money, hated for its lack of sound privacy, blasted for reinforcing sexist behavior, and even cited as a reason people considered leaving their jobs, which have led many to callrepeatedly, for the end of the open-plan office.

The pandemic may finally make that happen. According to a new survey of tech companies, fewer than half of offices with fully open plans expect to keep that layout in the post-pandemic era. For some offices, the open plan is already on its way out.

Conducted by the commercial real estate firm Savills in August and September, the survey asked 250 tech companies mostly in North America about how the pandemic had affected their plans for office space and workforce growth in the near term.

Before the onset of the pandemic, 46% of respondents said their offices were entirely open plan, with either bench seating or cubicles. Looking to their plans going forward, fewer than half of them—only 22% of respondents—said they would continue to keep their open office plan. Even those respondents with a mix of mostly open plans plus some private offices said they’d be likely to change things going forward; about a quarter of respondents said they’d change things in the near future.

The move away from open office plans may be just the start of big changes coming to tech workplaces. According to the survey, offices may also be getting smaller, with more than 80% of respondents saying they expect to need less office space in the next 12 to 18 months. More than half of respondents said they’d even be getting rid of at least some, if not most, of their office space within the next year and a half.

But that doesn’t mean the office itself is dead. In fact, only about a tenth of respondents said they expected to have more than 60% of their workforce working remotely full time in a post-vaccine environment.

So if the open-plan office is out but offices themselves are still a part of most companies’ futures, what will they look like? For most respondents, this is an open question. Almost a third of respondents said they were still considering their workplace planning going forward, and 40% said they had not yet decided on the density of their prospective new office layouts.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on the shape and practice of work, and its implications are still evolving. If open-plan opponents are lucky, this may be the beginning of the end of the office design that they love to hate.

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