Lessons from the corporate: The trendy open office

What is the theory and motivation behind the open, fun office trend and what can we learn?

Office spaces have evolved over the years taking different forms; compartmentalized rooms with doors, rows of desks, cubicles and anything inbetween. The current trend is open office spaces where organizational hierarchies collapse and staff roam free with their responsibilities in briefcases, or messenger bags, and any horizontal surface acting as their desk for the day, hour or minute. As with Google’s crazy offices, some of their complexes add in slides, ball pits and game rooms to make work a relaxing, fun place to be. Like any reactionary trend, these office spaces seem to have reached the other side of the pendulum. What lessons are there for nonprofit, social service organizations to utilize space as the trend starts to swing back towards center?

Open, dynamic office space was not just a fluke or passing thought from a hip CEO. It is rooted in concepts of greater creativity, productivity and employee morale, among other factors. The shift in office space and organizational function was investigated in this architectural thesis project out of the University of Detroit Mercy, School of Architecture. In her investigation, Dima Daimi points that current workplace trends are only successful when they are designed to accommodate the physical and metaphysical needs of humans. These new ways of working are designed to promote greater collaboration, more opportunities to connect with others, and positive attachment to coworkers and the corporation all in the name of creating a more attractive work environment that nurtures the employees. Ultimately, Daimi calls for a design process that strives to “understand human behavior, understand work demand and understand how to blend them” when creating a work environment

Daimi draws a strong parallel by comparing workplace design to city master planning.  “Although the act of a morning commute is an individual task, in an urban context it becomes a dynamic event that is filled with seamless transactions between strangers.  Open office environments are so much more than a trend if done correctly.  They need more than just a big space for people, they need moments for people to take a break and retreat, they need areas for people to gather and they need to be designed to create seamless interactions for people to communicate easier and more effectively. 

This trend raises many more questions for how we work in nonprofit, social service or youth development settings. Michigan State University Extension, and many similar organizations, strive to create work environments that are comfortable for everyone. Especially with social service understandings of personality types and cultural competency, joining the open office trend might make certain individuals or groups uncomfortable which is certainly a consideration.  Still, nonprofits, social service and youth development agencies all believe in creating a better life for others.  Why not explore what changes in an office environment can do for your daily lifestyle? Finding ways to respond to individual’s needs, staff interactions and even reflect the organization’s mission in how office space is used is a great start.

Ultimately, practical issues come into consideration as well, like file confidentiality, need for privacy and the overarching fact that many nonprofit, outreach organizations work in allocated spaces with rare opportunities to reconfigure. An upcoming article, Reimagining allocated office space, addresses issues and alternatives that can be considered. As Daimi points out, there are organizational and social changes that can have as much impact as spatial changes in office culture.

Special thanks to Dima Daimi (M.Arch), architectural and interior designer, for her input and feedback on this topic!

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