Article: Open-Plan Lite

Heather McLean

The Recellularisation of the Workplace

by Rodi McLean
April 2023

Many businesses and organisations are still wrestling with how best to encourage their people back to their office. This is proving to be difficult for several reasons. For some, it’s as simple as the cost and complexity of the commute. For most, it’s the ability to work effectively from home after successfully adopting the technologies to enable this during the pandemic. The trust that was earned during that period, and the changes many have made to their work-life balance, make returning to the office in large numbers a harder sell. For others, their office doesn’t provide the variety of work settings they need.

The data varies across the country and across sectors but, typically, daily office occupation rates in the UK are, on average, between 20% and 40%, with peaks around 60%, midweek. If we are to attract people back into the office, we need to ensure that the space created supports each company’s needs. In most cases, people’s needs now don’t align with the pre-Covid workplace.

The modern office is a 'tool' which enables each organisation, or occupier, to carry out their work effectively, together. Together is the key word here. It’s where we meet our clients and customers, it’s where we engage in collaborative work, it’s where we make friends and, occasionally, our life partners. The office is the physical manifestation of each organisation’s brand. After its people, the office is the most important tool each organisation has.

To attract people back to the office, an organisation must first establish why they need an office in the first place. The why will inform the what and the how: what exactly is this product (that we own or rent) providing for our organisation, and how do we design our office to make us more effective, and attractive to our people? The language that resonates is the creation of the 'corporate home'. The association between home and work are now so strong that the language naturally migrates to the office. The comforts afforded by our homes need to be bettered by our workplace to attract people back.

So, why bother coming into the office if it’s an extension of my home? The benefits an office provides to any organisation include a space in which to collaborate in larger numbers, a space for socialising, a place to support the well-being of its people, a place for learning and for support, and an environment to engender the culture that every organisation wants to have. The office provides so many positives.

What are the negatives? The most common issues we discuss with clients relate to noise and poor acoustics. When we work from home, we have the ability to control our environments – heating, lighting, aspect and sound. In the office, some of that control is sacrificed, especially acoustic comfort. Sitting in open-plan with several colleagues on MS Teams calls, for extended periods, can be annoying. Many people’s primary reason to come to the office is to collaborate. If they can’t find an appropriate space, and they end up meeting in open-plan, it can be distracting to those around them.

Consequently, over the last two years, we have seen a steady move towards greater cellularisation using furniture, enclosure products or traditionally constructed rooms. Smaller cellular accommodation has become more popular as it creates space for phone calls, quiet or concentrated working, and one to one meetings. It also facilitates noisy working, such as MS Teams calls, taking the high level noise out of open-plan. Larger rooms, set up with or without technology, are also popular because they facilitate noisy collaborative working within open-plan. These spaces often need to be flexible. Products, such as acoustic curtains and moveable acoustic panels, help reduce noise without fixing boundaries and compromising the open plan. These types of spaces are essential in the modern open plan office. The desire to control noise in the office, to attract people back to the office, is influencing how we plan our work spaces.

If we look at the hierarchy of sound within the office, there are three principles zones - high, medium and low noise volume. Areas of high volume include arrival spaces, social spaces, meeting rooms and collaborative areas. These areas are typically enclosed to provide security, privacy and control of noise. Low volume spaces, such as quiet or study space, are always enclosed and tend to be small. Medium noise volume space is now the open-plan. This is where a general level of low-level noise is acceptable to most people. In fact, very quiet open-plan space with low occupancy is another factor that deters people from coming into the office. To help mitigate noise in open-plan, these spaces are best planned with small cellular spaces to support one-to-one meetings and online calls, and larger enclosed areas for collaborative working. We are now seeing a significant shift back to a more cellular workplace.

Pre-Covid workplaces were predominantly planned with between 70% to 80% open-plan work settings. Now, with the widespread adoption of hybrid working, we are seeing more open-plan space being utilised for enclosed space, and lots of it. Sometimes as much as 50% of the workplace is planned with cellular accommodation.

These changes to the office landscape seem certain to continue as hybrid working, and the technology required to support this methodology, become more embedded in our working lives. However, we won’t lose our open-plan offices. They are too important and they provide immeasurable value to every organisation. Open-plan space still provides the environment where we learn by 'osmosis'. The place where we learn by listening or seeing. The place where we share knowledge and ideas almost without realising it, because it is so immediate. Open-plan is still the jam in the sandwich, or the Marmite, depending on your feelings on this environment. Open-plan is changing to provide the right blend of work settings that we now need for hybrid working, to attract people back to the office.

On a positive note, this recellularisation of the modern office may prove to make older office buildings more desirable for small and medium-sized businesses. Period buildings, and offices with legacy fit outs, tend to be more cellular. These buildings provide ready-made spaces to support the different work settings we now need in our workplaces to support hybrid working. This should surely be good news for cities and towns with lots of older building stock. It also aligns with sustainable development strategies and should provide many older office buildings with new investment opportunities.

Ironically, the technology we now use to connect to colleagues and customers, which we thought would hasten the death of the office, could be the key driver for the revitalisation of our dated, out of vogue office buildings. Like these buildings, our increasingly cellular office spaces hark back to workplace environments not seen for decades.