The Agile Office

The debate between Open Plan and Private Office is missing the point


Both an open plan office arrangement and private office approach are based on a flawed assumption that it’s possible to design an ideal space for average behaviors. Instead, we should aim to provide opportunities for bottom-up individual space planning. To do this, we must find a way to make an office interior reconfigurable.

Flawed Assumption: Design for Average Behaviors

For the last couple decades, the debate between an open plan office arrangement and a private office has not come to a conclusion. The open plan promises transparency, spontaneous collaboration and brainstorming. A private office boasts better productivity and concentration.

These conflicting paradigms will never reach a final conclusion. They argue the same flawed assumption that it’s possible to design an ideal space once and for all.

Both open plan or private office approaches are examples of top-down planning for average behaviors. Both focus on social engineering benefits to stimulate certain behaviors desired by the executives.

Here’s the challenge — no behavior is average. Requirements for space differ not just by organizations, not just by teams, not just by individuals, but over time for each individual. A person’s space preferences might change depending on their type of activity, project stage, time of day, week or season.

photo by @grigoryrudko

There’s no way to fully predict all behaviors and preferences. It’s impossible. And that’s just fine. Organizations, teams and individuals change; so should their work environment.

Agile Office: Bottom-up Design & Reconfiguration

What if instead we designed around the assumption that individual space preferences differ, change over time, and cannot be fully anticipated?

Taking this approach would mean that only individuals could know the best work environment for themselves at any given time. It’s logical that we should empower them to do so. Scaling this to an organizational level would yield a bottom-up office space.

Individual workspace adjustments may affect neighbors, and that’s why this requires peer-to-peer coordination and decision-making. Some level of local negotiations and compromises might be needed. The balance between common rules and scope of individual space personalization is subject to debate.

Agile office environment may end up being an open plan, private, stable hybrid, or dynamically fluctuate from one arrangement to another.

The bottom-up design approach doesn’t dictate the spatial organization of a space; rather, it focuses on rules and agents of spatial decision-making. Empowering workers to decide the fate of their own environment is the key priority.

Bottleneck: Hardware Reconfiguration

The ability to reconfigure space today is largely limited to furniture. It’s usually possible to move tables and chairs around, but that’s about it. Peer-to-peer space planning won’t be fully functional without the ability to seamlessly create custom private and semi-private spaces with good soundproofing.

That’s why we’re focused on developing a design-build-operate system for indoor reconfiguration. The goal is to create an integrated hardware+software solution that would seamlessly and rapidly reconfigure spaces according to individual needs. When we get there, the agile office and bottom-up design process won’t seem like such a crazy idea.