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After three years in an "incredibly groovy" Manhattan loft, the top brass at VIA, a marketing and strategic-design agency, also found they had to provide more separation. "The designers want music," explains Donna Torrance, general manager of the New York City office, "the writers want silence, and the account people are on the phone all day." Her solution? She is moving the departments far from one another and isolating the writers in a room with a door. But it's a 100-in.-wide swinging barn door, she notes. "When it's not shut, the opening is half the width of the room inside, and the writers will still be sharing energy and space with us."
What VIA has discovered by trial and error is a balance between open and closed spaces, between individual work and collaborative effort. It is the compromise Brill is currently suggesting to his clients, adding to the mix the crucial element of choice. "We're recommending team spaces in the middle of a cluster of small private offices," he says. "If you open the door, you're in the team space. If it's shut, you're not."
Don't be worried, however, that open-plan offices are about to go the way of the cherrywood executive corridor. Despite the many drawbacks, no one is predicting the concept's imminent demise. The cost of real estate is just too high, and open plans are cheaper space at higher density. The challenge that open space--in fact, any space--must confront is that "work is changing more rapidly than the environment," says Judith Heerwagen, an environmental psychologist in Seattle, "and we have to catch up and understand it better."
Staff members at Sun Microsystems are trying to do just that, says Ann Bamesberger, director of the company's workplace-effectiveness group. Encouraged by Bamesberger's group, they are beginning to make office-design decisions based largely on how they work. "A group might say," she explains, "'Forget individual spaces and build us a club. We'll do our heads-down work from home. We know we can't work in that noise.'" In a global economy, Bamesberger says, "the idea of seeing everyone in the office is now antiquated."
Now, there's a thought: the open office is retro.