In Defence of Individual Offices

Open-plan offices have never been for me. I don’t have the attention span to deal with all the distractions, I’m a germaphobe, and I still struggle to understand that, just because they’re far away, you don’t need to shout down the phone. To be a bit Gen Z about it, they’re just not part of my journey.

Over the last decade or so, many companies have propelled their open-plan office efforts, breaking down walls in favour of a more “collaborative work environment”. In fact, we’ve seen the office space provision go from 23m2 per full-time employee (FTE) at the start of the 2010s, go down to 6m2 per FTE. This was hastened with the popularity of WeWork… we seemed to want to work on shared benches in offices where the word ‘hustle’ was carved into the cucumbers placed into water dispensers.

However, whispers in corporate corridors are insisting that private offices still offer perks with their comeback backed by smart building technology.

Privacy and confidentiality top the main reasons for a comeback. Having sufficient air and light, rather than being locked away in a phone booth, makes a marathon of confidential calls more tolerable to a human. Being able to adjust the HVAC and blinds ensures a will to live and improved productivity. I’ve seen first-hand how reluctant people can be to speak up on a call when they’re in an open-plan office – that can’t be good for collaboration!

Perverse as it sounds, having a door between yourself and the hum of the office, may increase collaboration. Being able to see if someone is explicitly busy or primed to be spoken to might just give us the invitation we need. Perhaps that’s a more human approach to those coloured monitor flags that match your Teams status? Being able to close the door at the right time can eliminate distractions when you need to get on with something. The increased use of white noise devices and headphones in the office makes it harder to disturb people, and we’re losing that ability to start some serendipitous collaboration.

Individual offices are especially important in a post-pandemic world. By their very nature, Individual offices facilitate social distancing and reduce the number of surfaces shared with colleagues. And yes, don’t forget about customisation—the little comforting touch of warm personalisation hidden in the ability to fill your workspace with a dash of ‘you’.

Cleaning schedules also get a techy twist; smart sensors can detect when rooms have been used and therefore need a clean—a crucial feature for event-based facilities contracts.

Now that occupancy sensing and space management tools are so much better, we might be able to deliver more aggressive space allocations than in the past, making individual offices economically viable. Plenty of solutions are available to monitor and allocate available offices. They can also contribute to security, with access control systems ensuring that only authorised people can enter private offices.

I’m convinced… but until the day that my corner office is ready, I guess I need some noise-cancelling headphones.

In Dr Marson’s monthly column, he’ll be chronicling his thoughts and opinions on the latest developments, trends, and challenges in the Smart Buildings industry and the wider world of construction. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out, you’re sure to find something of interest here.

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Matthew Marson is an experienced leader, working at the intersection of technology, sustainability, and the built environment. He was recognised by the Royal Academy of Engineering as Young Engineer of the Year for his contributions to the global Smart Buildings industry. Having worked on some of the world’s leading smart buildings and cities projects, Matthew is a keynote speaker at international industry events related to emerging technology, net zero design and lessons from projects. He was an author in the Encyclopaedia of Sustainable Technologies and a published writer in a variety of journals, earning a doctorate in Smart Buildings.