Privacy Options: Convene designs spaces with open work areas and private offices.

Privacy Options: Convene designs spaces with open work areas and private offices. Photo by convene

A few years ago, companies were clamoring to knock down cubicle walls and do away with corner offices as a way to encourage collaboration while also saving money on rent.

But the so-called “open concept” trend appears to be getting some pushback.

Many workers in open offices say the approach is distracting. “I could have written faster and sent in more work if I had a space that was relatively quiet,” said Eb Richardson, a television and advertising producer who previously worked in an open office. The noise level and constant presence of other people also made it difficult to take calls with clients, she said.

To restore structure to their workplaces, some Los Angeles companies are asking designers and architects to walk back the open concept trend.

Phone booths, tinted glass, noise-absorbing furniture and partition walls are restoring a level of solitude to the workplace while retaining some elements of openness.

“We’re moving toward more privacy,” said Mark Sullivan, western regional lead at real estate brokerage Savills Inc. “We’ve gone too far to the other extreme. It’s impacting productivity.”

All-in to open up

Architects and brokers say the open concept office gained popularity after the Great Recession as companies ramped up their businesses but wanted to remain cautious in their spending. Companies that needed 25,000 square feet with a traditional office plan, for example, could save money by squeezing the same operation into 15,000 to 18,000 square feet with open plans.

“You can pack a higher density of people into the square footage,” said Scott Hunter, a principal at Dallas-based architecture firm HKS Architects’ Los Angeles office.

But lately HKS is being called on to design more “off the beaten path, closed-door private spaces” employees can reserve, Hunter said. HKS is developing offices with small rooms for meetings and a range of other privacy options for Brentwood-based Capital Brands’ Wilshire Boulevard operation and for Kaiser Permanente Inc.’s Porter Ranch facility.

Ryan Harding, an executive managing director at Newmark Knight Frank, says the open office concept went “went way too far.” At many companies, conference rooms tend to be occupied round-the-clock by individual workers simply looking to make a private phone call, he said.

A 2018 Harvard Business School-funded study, “The Impact of the ‘Open’ Workspace on Human Collaboration,” found that face-to-face interaction actually decreased 70 percent when the walls came down.

One of Harding’s clients, a tech company he declined to name, opted for an open office concept roughly seven years ago. The company now wants more privacy, so it’s adding conference rooms and other separated areas. Other clients have added glass dividers and smaller rooms.

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