Everyone hates the open floor office plan. Meet its remote-work-friendly replacement: ‘quiet spaces’

With unavoidable Zoom meetings and private rooms in short supply, most offices are incapable of supporting deep-think work workers need.

empty office hallway

Offices rushing to provide conviviality are overlooking what workers need most: quiet spaces. Klaus Vedfelt—Getty Images

Here’s the party line, in case you’ve missed it: Working from home is best for when you need heads-down, deep-thinking, focused work. The office is best for collaborating, brainstorming, and bonding with your team. But what happens when you’re in the office and inevitably still have to take a Zoom call?

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Here’s the party line, in case you’ve missed it: Working from home is best for when you need heads-down, deep-thinking, focused work. The office is best for collaborating, brainstorming, and bonding with your team. But what happens when you’re in the office and inevitably still have to take a Zoom call?

The answer, as scores of in-person workers have been angry to find, is that the workplace is often incapable of supporting deep work at all, largely because of how incredibly noisy pre-pandemic open floor plans can be. Because it’s difficult to segment in-office days as purely collaborative, and Zoom meetings will inevitably pop up, offices keen on welcoming workers back in at least some of the time must factor in areas where quiet is king.

As the Financial Times pointed out this week, for many workers, offices can function as a refuge from the many distractions that may be plaguing them at home, whether that be roommates, young kids, or a spouse who’s also taking Zoom calls when there’s only one office. But workers who live by themselves, or who have fewer distractions at home, are so used to the peace and quiet remote work has provided them that returning to the office can be a bit of a culture shock.

“When you’ve spent two years alone, you become very sensitive to noise,” Jeremy Myerson, emeritus professor at the Royal College of Art and coauthor of Unworking, a book about the modern office, told FT. “What we’re hearing from HR departments is that people are hypersensitive to their environments.” 

But that doesn’t mean the comeback of the cubicle, FT promises. Instead, employers are acquiescing to workers’ needs for a quiet, comfortable work environment by rushing to equip their offices with phone booths, private rooms, and pods that can fit one to two people and be checked out or reserved in advance. One such product comes from Microsoft, which recently dropped a new prototype for its cocoon-like Flowspace Pod, outfitted with a monitor and a plush seat. Meanwhile, WeWork also told FT about providing designated areas for transient workers and private amenities for corporate members, calling these additions “quiet spaces.”

Making the office worth the trip

But all these perks are for naught if the workers don’t think they’re worth commuting for. “We are really talking about treating the office as a destination, not an obligation,” Elizabeth Brink, a workplace expert at architecture firm Gensler, told the Los Angeles Times in November. 

While returning to the office and reconnecting with coworkers in person can be a great experience, Brink said, it can also be “a lot, emotionally, for people—it can create stress.”

That’s where “zoom rooms” come in. Instead of shelling out on foosball tables or open bars, companies are now looking toward “socially evolved” additions to offices, like mental health or wellness rooms, outdoor workspace, lactation rooms, or prayer and meditation rooms.

“It’s about employee health, employee wellness, employee productivity, and business continuity,” Joseph Allen, director of Harvard’s Healthy Buildings Program and associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Fortune’s L’Oreal Thompson Payton. “Major organizations are rethinking their approach to commercial real estate…because the C-suite has started to really pay attention to the key role that buildings play in the health of their people and their company.”

That’s no small role, Allen added. “We’re an indoor species. We spend all of our time in places we work, travel, live, play, pray and heal [indoors] and it has such a massive impact on our health.”

All this suggests another formative shift coming to the office. Years ago, cubicles were dominant. Then, heralded as revolutionary and conducive to collaboration, came the open floor plan. But, as Susan Cain points out in her bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, the open plan office has numerous pitfalls, such as overstimulation for introverted workers and constant distractions for everyone else. 

Now, we’re turning to a hybrid option that melds the best benefits of open floor plans and cubicles together. Workers and office planners seem to have finally recognized the value of quiet space.

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