The Origin of the “Open Office” - Guest Blog by Tom Marquardt

The Origin of the “Open Office” - Guest Blog by Tom Marquardt


Last month, we published a post titled, “Is the ‘Open Office’ Still King?” When we reached out to a few of our favorite industry professionals to get their take on it, Tom Marquardt, Vice President, Director of Interiors for HOK’s Chicago office, provided us with a thoughtful reply. Shortly after, he spoke on the topic at the Tom Frances Harrington Speaker Series. Below is his full response.


The problems with “workplace trends” as workplace innovations are that they are just that: “Trends,” and as such not far removed from “fads.”

Most people believe the evolution of the open office and benching was a reaction against closed offices, cubicles and the problems of silo-ing; between divisions, departments and people.

The motivation to “break down the walls” was in an attempt to create more interaction and communications. That said, the real source for this “innovation” was generated by startups in the tech industry, and had little to do with innovation.

It was actually caused by young tech inventors (many in garages, shared apartments, moms’ basements or illegal industrial spaces) and the lack of initial money or investment in a formal office, as the tech inventors became startups; focused on the technologies and their developments, and honestly didn’t care or have the money to bother with a traditional office.

They were working at an old dining table with 5 desktops and two laptops, and pizza and coffee, when available.

Thus, they found old sofas in the alley or from their college apartments, worked at a coffee table sitting on an area rug on the floor, or just adapted some old wood to make a work ledge. They had little concern for appearances or formality as it was not critical to their initiatives. Maybe they took breaks to throw a football, play on their parents’ ping pong table or mess with video games, but their drive was their work. This experience of working like college kids in any adapted environment to evolve their inventions (many started these in college and never graduated) changed the way they saw a workspace.

For those who found success, they suddenly moved from leveraging credit cards and loans from their parents and sharing an apartment with six roommates, to leading multi-million dollar companies – overnight.  And, well, the casual, informal, comfortable, rough and tumble approach came with them, albeit now in the form of expensive pool tables, dart boards, pinball machines, sofa seating, and yes, even $18K Rancilio Espresso makers.

That old dining table or ledges they made and worked around developing apps, website concepts and disruptive virtual businesses, turned into long worktables, and eventually impacted the “workstyle” trend of an entire generation. Thus as they had the money to hire expensive design firms to create unique spaces, that respected the roots of their start, and expressed the play and informality that was about their formative years in business, a “lifestyle” trend evolved, and suddenly through white papers became the workplace innovation of a whole industry.

Today we see law firms embracing the open office (or at least finally ditching the oak and black leather stereotype conventions for glass and white, open spaces with expensive Italian contract worktables). Oh the irony…

Yes, the design industry and the business communities did see the benefits of the open office: the immediacy of communications, “collision” breakout areas to get head-down introverted employees to meet and share information, and find a “new” informality, that is intended to break down silos, support better communications and attract talent. That said, it has in itself quickly become a convention, like lifestyle aspirations of luxury brands found its own sameness, AND shelf life. And with this evolution with all the graphics and cafes, lounge and play areas, many immediately think of the evolution as the foundation of a “Branded Environment.”

What is missed here, by many companies, and designers and marketing strategists and brand specialists, is that a true user experience, that supports an improved workflow, communications and employee retention, is one that reflects the individual company, their workflows and their unique and authentic brand truths.

In other words, differentiated not by trend, but by specific pragmatic, functional and yes, even some gratuitous amenities that support the workflow and experience of that specific company.  

Recycled wood, residential furniture, open and touchdown spaces, whatever, are just tools. So are old Steelcase 9000 office cubicles. The solution for one company, if really designed based on that company, should for the most part be completely different than another regardless of if they are both in the same industry providing the same services or product. And yes, making it attractive to the desires of the users is important, but not at the compromise of the workflow and efficiencies of a company. It is really a customized balance, and many companies today seem to be willing to forego the efficiencies, for the workstyle trends, to attract new talent.  The thing is, how long will they stay, and how well will the company do, in the process?