This morning on CBC, there was a brief segment on "what will workplaces look like after COVID". They brought in someone from one of the big architecture firms to talk about this, and the first words out of her mouth were something to the effect of "more emphasis on collaborative work" <blah blah blah> ... after that I tuned out.
Here's the thing. I've been hearing the "collaboration" argument used to justify cramming more workers into less space for years. The result has been a one-size-fits-all dystopian hellscape of so-called "open concept" workspaces that are noisy, have no privacy for workers, and are basically breeding grounds for adult-onset ADHD problems.
In my opinion, the "open concept office" is one of the greatest failures of the 20th century. It "saves money" by cramming more people into less space, but with no regard for how the individual needs to work, or the nature of the work that they are doing.
However, it takes away from people a myriad of things that contribute to being productive in the workplace, including personalizing their workspaces (yes, this is often much more important than you think), recognizing different working styles that people may have, and so on. Banging away on "collaboration" is missing the point - collaboration isn't some magical elixir that's going to make business better, or make the workplace better.
In a 25 year career in software development, I experienced multiple types of workplaces, and some worked better for me than others. Some I liked, some were absolute trash. The work I did often involved long periods of time for deeply focused concentration - as in close the door, and get lost in the problem I was trying to solve. The last thing I needed was the kind of constant distractions that happen with the pervasive noise and activity in a cubicle farm or "open concept" environment.
Thinking about the different kinds of work that were going on in that company, there were clearly departments who benefit from having individual offices, and there were other departments which would have benefited from having more open environments, and still other parts of the operation where combinations were needed because of varying workloads.
There's a point here: businesses need to get away from what I will only kindly call "one size fits all" approaches to workspaces and working. When you are designing a workspace, talk to your stakeholders, and design the space for how they want to work. Understand both the nature of the work itself, as well as the workflow that is going on, then design for that.
Additionally, you need to pay attention to the human needs - not just the shape of the chairs, or the height of the desks, etc., but also the very human need for people to make their workspace at least somewhat their own. If you're expecting someone to be at their desk all day, it's utterly unreasonable to insist that they not personalize their space at all (a practice that has become increasingly common as walls have slowly dropped in height to barely be enough to keep your neighbour's lunch from landing on your desk, and the concept of "hoteling" or unassigned seating has become fashionable.
While these more recent trends no doubt reduce the "cost per employee" in terms of space, they do very little or nothing to improve the working conditions for employees, and have a hidden cost in terms of lost productivity.
After spending the last year mostly working from home, many workers are going to return to their former workspaces and ask themselves "what kind of hell is this from?". For the last year, workers have had direct control over their workspaces, and while we might all be a little tired from constantly using Zoom, Teams or other conferencing tools to communicate with our peers, many have had a level of control over their work environment that they haven't had for years. Businesses should not expect them to give that up.