The End of Open-Plan Everything

Personal space is finally back in style, but re-creating it after two decades of its destruction is hardly a straightforward task.

Last fall, True Manufacturing completed a project long in the making. The company, which specializes in commercial refrigeration systems, had decided to abandon the neutral cubicles that had encased customer-service workers at its Missouri headquarters, opting instead for a redesign that featured the clustered, partitionless seating now ubiquitous in modern offices. A few months later, as the coronavirus forced Americans to learn the details of social distancing and respiratory droplets, the company got to work on another initiative, this one executed with considerably more haste: redividing its workers into cubicles with clear plexiglass partitions.

“Oh my gosh, talk about taking 10 steps back,” Steven Proctor, True Manufacturing’s director of sales and marketing, told me. “We just did the big open-office concept; we put everybody in desk shares that were right on top of each other.” The company’s office and the problems it suddenly presented might have been brand new, but the concerns of Proctor and his co-workers were far from unique. This spring, millions of Americans trying to limit their interactions with colleagues or working from home alongside roommates or family members were forced to look around and wonder where all the walls had gone. On a hunch, True didn’t stop at just its own partitions—the company ordered more plexiglass, settled on some standard sizes, and contacted the local chamber of commerce to offer itself up for custom jobs, sure that lots of other businesses would find themselves in the same bind. Orders began coming in almost immediately.

Over the past few decades, the formerly subdivided interior spaces of work and home got a lot more open. Private offices gave way to cost-effective cubicles, and once California tech companies became the influential employers of a new generation, their open plans were the beginning of the end of private workspaces—even the humble cubicle. At home, a cavalcade of HGTV house flippers and luxury renovators instructed viewers to tear down those walls in pursuit of an open-concept living space. Open plans were so tantalizing to some people that they spawned their own celebrities: Chip and Joanna Gaines, a pair of evangelical Texas parents, became huge stars, complete with their own product lines, shops, and restaurants, by demolishing seemingly every interior wall in Waco.

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But this spring, walls both partial and permanent got the advocate they needed: the pandemic.

In the past few months, the lives that unfolded in the airy, impersonal spaces of the Before Times have changed. Collaboration and togetherness have become disease vectors, to say nothing of open floor plans’ less deadly problems, such as the impossibility of two Zoom calls happening without a wall between them. Once sold as chic and modern, the wholesale abandonment of defined spaces feels at times even more ill-considered than it did when the biggest issue was listening to your co-workers yak on the phone. As early as March, designers, manufacturers, and architects started building plans and products for what they guessed might be a precipitous change in daily life. They were right. Personal space is finally back in style, but re-creating it after two decades of its destruction is hardly a straightforward task. We have to decide what we want from walls in the first place. The threat of illness and extended home quarantine took floor plans out of the realm of philosophy and reminded all involved of the necessary functional reason humans have been building walls for millennia: to keep other people away from them.

The march toward open-plan everything came in fits and starts. In the early 1900s, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Prairie” style helped give open plans a visual vernacular, and as the century progressed, walls began to fall away as domestic help became less affordable. If middle-class mothers couldn’t sequester the cook in the kitchen while they tended to the kids, then the hidden kitchen would no longer do. “Then, as now, [open plans] promised to tear down obstruction and facilitate connection,” my colleague Ian Bogost wrote in a 2018 history of the style. “The mother, relegated to the kitchen, needed to have a view of where the children were playing in the yard. This key principle would evolve to justify open plans more generally, but with a mother’s view of the safe confines of the indoors more in mind.” HGTV, which features lots of wall removal because demolition makes for great TV, isn’t selling just a theory of design—it’s selling the persistent myth that if women buy the right things, they really can have it all.

The office’s embrace of fully open plans was faster. Many offices were first partially opened for mid-century secretarial pools, but the design’s wide adoption for office workers of all kinds began in the early 2000s, with the ascendance of Silicon Valley tech companies such as Google and Apple and their futuristic, super-casual workplaces. They influence the American workplace today in much the same way that companies such as General Motors and General Electric did in the previous century.

Randy Howder, a co-managing director of the San Francisco office for the design and architecture firm Gensler, thinks that open plans can be very effective when they’re well designed by architects who understand a particular workplace’s culture and needs, though he admits that’s not the only reason they’ve proliferated. “The angel on my left shoulder says they’re popular because there was a lot of belief in the fact that an open office engendered greater collaboration and more lateral awareness of what other colleagues are doing,” he said. “The devil on my right shoulder says it was sometimes cheaper and more cost-effective and faster to build” an open-plan office, which resulted in squished-together desks and no privacy in workplaces where people need quiet and focus. And that belief that open offices would foster teamwork? The opposite now appears to be true.

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So America found itself with few barriers to prevent “connection”—or to catch sneezes—at the beginning of 2020. By then, the limitations of open plans had already become clear both at work and at home: The noisiness of high-ceilinged, hardwood-floored, densely populated offices had helped spur the rapid adoption of Apple AirPods. Dishwashers now come with decibel ratings to ensure that the occupants of America’s “great rooms” can hear The Masked Singer over dinner cleanup. In its 2019 workplace survey, Gensler found that 65 percent of respondents wanted at least semiprivate workspaces; another quarter wanted on-demand access to private spaces. At home, the American Institute of Architects’ annual survey of residential architects found double-digit declines in interest in open layouts compared with the previous year in both 2019 and 2020.

Despite this changing tide of opinion, the return of walls had not been widely predicted. Walls, or even new office partitions or desk dividers, are expensive and bulky. Workspaces that had been built to function without them can’t be easily expanded to accommodate them, and people who had spent thousands of dollars and months of their life knocking down too many parts of their house in the past decade might be loath to spend even more time and money to have individual rooms once again.

Still, in one way or another, walls have started to creep back into the places whence they had been banished. You might have already seen some of True Manufacturing’s work without realizing it—the company has filled orders for plexiglass dividers for the food-service and hospitality clients it serves through its refrigeration business, but also for banks, school systems, police departments, care homes, and the NBC Sports broadcast of a recent Mecum automotive auction, for which True customized the clear partitions with the network’s logo. Partitions and dividers have been in such demand nationwide that supplies of the materials most often used to make them, like plexiglass, have begun to run low.

For companies that make products for spaces that have suddenly fallen into disuse—restaurants, hotels, offices—pivoting to partitions has also helped them continue to cut paychecks to engineers, designers, manufacturers, and salespeople. Stylex, an office-furniture company based in New Jersey, began planning for the return of walls on a hunch in late March. “I started to think, somewhat out of desperation, what could we do that people are actually going to need toward the end of this year and into next year?” Bruce Golden, Stylex’s co-CEO, told me. “They probably have enough chairs. They probably have enough desks.”

To answer that question, his company came up with a product called Quick Screens—tall, simple, fabric-covered partitions on casters. When the line launches next month, orders will ship in 10 days as opposed to Stylex’s typical six to eight weeks, the fastest the company has ever turned around a product. Golden said that although the new partitions have generated some interest, the coronavirus has disrupted more than just office setups. The commercial-furniture industry is still trying to adjust its sales techniques to the new normal. “Usually, the salespeople go out and they make calls—present the products, talk about the products person to person,” Golden told me. “The designers and the dealers do go onto our website, but making them aware of the products is not that easy. But the word will get out there.”

At Gensler, Howder is already planning for his clients’ return to work. “We see some interesting movement toward things that are neither an office nor an open environment,” he told me, emphasizing that the cube farm of the ’90s is not coming back. Instead, Howder is predicting the rise of what his firm calls the “officle.” It’s not exactly a private office, not exactly an open work area, not exactly a small conference room—but maybe it’s all those things. The image can be hard to conjure; it’s a small, partially open space where, at least theoretically, you don’t have to listen to your desk neighbors talk about their spouse for a couple of hours while you try to hit a deadline. These spaces would also help separate workers if they return to the office while the threat of coronavirus infection remains. Before more permanent changes can be made, Howder said, that means reorganizing open-plan common areas, sometimes with partitions such as those made by Stylex, which is one of Gensler’s suppliers. In the long term, that means—yes—walls.

In homes, things work more slowly. The budgets are personal instead of corporate. Offices can be altered with ease while employees clack away on laptops at their kitchen tables, but no one wants to live in a construction site and a pandemic simultaneously. Still, some residential architects have started to see signs of life. Jane Frederick, the president of the American Institute of Architects, says that although business is slower than normal at her Beaufort, South Carolina, residential-design firm, the phone has started to ring again. “We’re getting quite a few calls because I think people are pent up in their houses, and they’re going crazy,” Frederick told me. “But they’re very nervous to pull the trigger.” She wasn’t shocked to hear that people wanted to renovate after staring at their own walls for months on end. “If you moved into an existing space, you just made your life work around whatever rooms were there,” Frederick said. “You might have been using the dining room as an office, but it doesn’t really work now, because if someone is in the kitchen grinding coffee, you can hear it on your Zoom call.” Even amid a worsening pandemic in the state, the small firm has booked a handful of new projects.

Frederick told me that, at least in her practice, interest in open plans was never quite as extreme as the transformations frequently depicted on HGTV, a channel she said she doesn’t watch, because of the unrealistic expectations it engenders in novice renovators. But the past few years have seen a definite uptick in desire for more defined rooms—just not at the front of the house. “You used to have one room that was sort of your mudroom, laundry room, and pantry, and now those typically are three different rooms” in the home’s rear, Frederick told me. In new homes and high-end renovations, unsightly chores have gotten their own dedicated spaces, away from the presentation area of the open kitchen. Frederick expects demand for these kinds of spaces to continue to rise during and immediately after the pandemic, as people prize a separation between the “dirty” and “clean” areas of a home. The same search for separation (but without the cleanliness concern) has happened with the living room—more of Frederick’s clients have started to request spaces for yoga, reading, or meditation elsewhere in their home, seeking seclusion for activities that might have previously been done in the now-open area.

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Although these choices are the province of the wealthy, the preferences of people with lots of choices often end up reflected in the homes of Americans with more modest means down the line. “Open kitchens” and their immense, marble-topped islands get shrunk down to budget sizes and remade in cheap materials, tucked into the corners of rental apartments and finished with a subway-tile backsplash. People without a dedicated mudroom buy shoe racks and wall hooks to dress up the area near their door as a “room” unto itself. It isn’t a wall, but during a pandemic, walls have started to seem pretty luxurious. To have walls, you need space.

Where space isn’t available, or when time is of the essence, both manufacturers that I spoke with expect the partition business to attract new customers and competitors for at least the next six months to a year, if not longer. And as the country has already learned this year with faulty masks and fake hand sanitizer, pandemic panic-buying can attract some unsavory operators and pose unforeseen risks to a desperate public—even cutting into a sheet of plexiglass and bolting it to a desk or counter isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. “That acrylic gets in your skin and cuts you, and I think you’d rather get cut with glass,” said Steve Alexander, True Manufacturing’s parts-marketing manager. Walls, in all their variations, aren’t created equally: Hastily purchased panels that haven’t been properly finished at the edges, that aren’t thick enough to stand rigidly, or whose bases are too narrow for their height could cause more problems than they solve, especially in sensitive environments such as hospitals or classrooms. “You can’t have these things fall on third or fourth graders if they go back to school,” Alexander noted. “That would be a big problem.”

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter