When it comes to workplace design and culture, the only constant is change. Think about the tools and technology you use at the office today compared to 10 years ago — you probably can’t remember the last time you had a desk phone or signed in to Lotus Notes. These shifts also change how we define a typical workday; it’s pretty normal to check emails and respond to Slack outside of the nine-to-five “office hours”.
As a result, organizations are prioritizing workspaces that can be adapted for a variety of different use cases. They may need additional space to host quarterly offsites, breakout conversations, or private discussions. Or they may need to provide a satellite office for a fixed-term project and its respective team; a desk for contracted consultants; or a place for employees to work uninterrupted. The possibilities are endless — and finding the proper solution can be daunting.
That’s where the modular office comes in. The modular office concept features a core space with additional breakout meeting rooms and workspaces that can be used as-needed. The benefit being that the space is adaptable and agile—two traits more leadership teams and employees are seeking — without sacrificing a sense of structure or adding additional costs.
But we didn’t just wake up one day with the sudden realization that we needed more from our office spaces. So how exactly did we get here?
Why open concept offices were introduced (twice)
If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again
Contrary to popular belief, the “modern” open concept office wasn’t born in the 2000s. In fact, it dates back to the 1700s, when clerical work was done in large open rooms. Since then, different variations have come and gone (and come back again): the offices of the 1950s, for example, looked a lot like today’s open concept layouts. But they didn’t last because leadership teams were worried they didn’t give young professionals enough privacy or permanency.
This concern inspired Robert Propst, then president of Herman Miller, to invent the “action office” in 1964. His vision for a cubicle-filled space was meant to improve open-office floor plans, by providing employees with the best of two worlds: personal office space where they could sit or stand (yes, standing desks!), and the ability to share natural light with their neighbours. Ditching the idolized “corner office,” he thought, would democratize the workplace, build a sense of equality, and save money. Soon enough, however, Propst’s original concept morphed into the barricades mocked in film and tv today.
As the cubicle’s reputation worsened the workforce began to revere open concept designs for their creative and collaborative tendencies. (How else would Jim have ever been able to prank Dwight or fall in love with Pam?)
Before we knew it, workplaces were reverting back to the very layout Propst had been trying to avoid.
Back to the future
Let’s rewind to why open concept offices got us excited in the first place: improved communication, ideation, collaborative resonance, and efficiency. And it makes sense — studies show that open space encourages open minds. Over time, the benefits of the design grew to include reduced overhear (between rent, furniture, tech, and accessories, individual workspaces can easily cost thousands of dollars) and increased density.
But benefits aside, it’s still not a perfect model. As tech moguls like Facebook and Google designed press-worthy futuristic campuses in the early aughts, more companies — including those, in finance, manufacturing, and pharmaceuticals — tried to follow suit, and quickly learned it wasn’t always a fit. Noise and excessive socialization lowered team productivity. Distraction alone can cost workers nearly a third of their day, and the lack of privacy also hinders innovation. Many employees in open concept offices also began to report poor relationships with colleagues and reduced job satisfaction and well-being — we’ve all been frustrated by coworkers who chow down loudly at their desks or gossip too much (Don’t worry, there’s an app for that).
The open concept office isn’t perfect, but we hate the idea of working in cubicles. So where does that leave us?
Square peg, round hole: why we need modular office spaces now more than ever
Given the history, it’s safe to say there’s no one way to design an office. Every company needs a space that’s as versatile as the employees within it. A successful (modular!) office environment provides access to a variety of spaces that can accomodate your changing needs at any time.
4 core benefits of a modular office design
There are four core premises (and promises) of modular offices spaces:
- Balance: they provide inspiring space for creative thinking and collaboration without sacrificing privacy for heads-down work and sensitive conversations.
- Flexibility: they can fluctuate based on the needs of individual staff, entire teams, and growing organizations.
- Technology: they can scale seamlessly by flexing on the technology of the sharing economy
- Cost: they provide affordable, sustainable short- or long-term space solutions (e.g. satellite offices that minimize employee transit) for rapidly expanding companies.
One-size-fits-no-one. Your team deserves to have every option available to them.
Towards new, customizable solutions: have we finally learned our lesson?
The open concept office isn’t an all-out failure or success; that’s why we see it come and go cyclically. Most workers and organizations aren’t all collaborative or creative; they need a balance of quiet, distraction-free space and a sense of privacy at work. Simply put: office design isn’t a case of either/or. It’s a case of yes/and.
The fact that modular offices can facilitate the needs of each specific team puts them miles ahead of other options: they offer a combination of privacy and collaboration that we need in today’s fast-paced, uber-productive work environment and they provide room for growth as companies expand and adapt to changing needs. There’s no risk of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole when space offers a hybrid that can work, uniquely, for you.