Will open offices ever go away? Here's what the future might look like

Open offices are far from perfect. TODAY explores how workspaces are changing.
Cube farm office verses and open office
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By Callie Patteson

The promise of open offices, in part, meant bringing people together and strengthening collaboration between employees. But after a determined effort by tech companies and coworking spaces like the now-faltering WeWork, that vision has yet to pan out.

A 2018 study from the Royal Society of Publishing took a detailed look at the productivity and collaboration of employees in an open environment. By monitoring emails and instant messages sent and comparing them to in-person interactions, researchers found "transitions to open office architecture do not necessarily promote open interaction."

In other words, face-to-face interactions actually decreased as digital interaction increased in the open office.

But if open offices aren't the future of workspaces, what is? According to cubicle and workspace manufacturers and distributors, it's more of a hybrid.

A hybrid workspace — one with a mix of cubicles and collaborative space — at the Redbox headquarters in ChicagoCubicle Concepts

"What we are seeing now is a return to cubicles but with lower walls," Michelle Swanger, the owner of Cube Solutions, an office furniture provider with locations in more than 18 metropolitan cities, told TODAY. "There are areas where people can get together with their laptops and collaborate in an open space and then have a cubicle to go and do their daily work in; people like a private space, something to call their own."

Example of an open office workspaceGetty Images

It's worth defining some terms here. Open offices are workspaces with extremely low dividers or no barriers at all between employees. Desks are more akin to a long table that is sectioned off evenly for each person. Around these desks, there are typically offices with doors and conference rooms but not enough for every employee to get privacy at the same time.

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The concept of the open office is not new; in fact, it was first seen as early as the 1750s in London for clerical workers (this video explainer from Vox provides a nice overview of the history of the workplace).

Cubicles, meanwhile, are partitioned-off sections that take up more space in the office but allow for each employee to have his or her own mini office. The walls for cubicles average around 4 to 6 feet tall.

"The open plan idea was pretty popular a few years ago," Swanger said. "But I think it was more practical in theory than in actual usage. It looks neat, it's a cool idea, but for most businesses and the way they work, it's just too chaotic."

Swanger's clients have told her that the open plan hindered communication as people coped with increased distractions by putting on headphones and tuning out the noises around them.

Indeed, the lack of privacy is a big problem.

At first, privacy pods, movable walls and more conference rooms appeared to be the solution. And miniature conference rooms seem to follow wherever the open office goes. The combination of the two made experts back in 2012 believe that open offices weren't going anywhere.

But as criticism of the open office grows, some companies are seeing an uptick in cubicle sales. The design, though, is no longer leaning toward the cube farm — think of the drudging, enclosed environment in the classic 1999 film "Office Space."

Bill Lumbergh, played by Gary Cole, talks to Peter, portrayed by Ron Livingston, in the 1999 film "Office Space."Alamy Stock Photo

"A lot of the reasons that scared people off from those (cubicles) was the drab 1980s-looking walls with fabric, looking lifeless and were kind of sectioned off and separated people too much from each other," Sarah Meagher, the director of marketing and sales for Modern Office, a family-owned furniture company located in Minnesota, told TODAY. "So you've gone from one extreme to the other — people used to be prairie-dogging to see each other to now everyone being visible."

That's where the hybrid model comes into play.

Andrew Oziemblo, the founder of Cubicle Concepts, an office furniture provider in Chicago, saw the trend starting roughly five years ago when collaborating with Redbox, a DVD, Blu-Ray and video game rental system known for its red kiosks in convenience and grocery stores. Cubicle Concepts, along with several other firms, worked closely with the company when designing 12 floors in its headquarters' Chicago high-rise. Together, they created a collaborative space with midsize cubicles, game rooms, open spaces and small, themed conference rooms — which served a similar purpose to that of today's privacy pods.

A themed conference room at RedboxCubicle Concepts

"Even five years ago they realized that not everything can be uniform," Oziemblo told TODAY. "I see the larger companies are paying more attention and have the budget to experiment and really look into their employees. The smaller companies, unfortunately, just don't have the resources, knowledge or tools at their disposal to even be aware of these impacts."

As companies decide how to design their offices, Oziemblo says that cubicles will always be around.

"They might have changed from being extremely tall walls to something of a hybrid to low walls," he said. "But ultimately, all of these are awesome tools in an office environment and if you implement the right tools in the right place, you're going to have success with it."

So what is the future of offices after hybrids? The largest factor to consider today is the electrical layout of the building, according to Benjamin A. Pardo, executive vice president of design at Knoll, a design firm that produces and manufactures furniture for the home and workplace.

Knoll features furniture with USB ports and outlets located outside of the traditional office.Knoll

Since all furniture with electronic components, like desks with computers and phones, are connected to the electrical system of a building, a workspace's design hinges on this configuration. Still, Pardo sees this dependency changing in the next five years with technology improvements like increased battery capacity.

"What that means is the overall transformation of space to no longer be dependent on the building for the supply of something," he told TODAY, "and this is absolutely transformational."