Workplace Design

Ainding an empty phone booth in the midst of a crowded open plan office is somewhat like finding the last table in your favourite restaurant in the city. You can find another spot in an office to make a call or find another restaurant to eat at, however, the experience is not quite the same.


London’s red phone booths. Image by Mona Jain.

Although many workplaces are still adopting the hybrid working arrangement, the return to the office still has not returned to where it was before the pandemic. Fortune Features published an article citing data from Kastle, who found that nearly half (47.5%) of workers who were in the office in 2020 before the lockdown was in the office from 8th September to 14th September 2022. While the figures revealed that not even half the office crowd is back in the office and that the current figures may seem low, it was actually a record-high appearance over the past few years as people settled into the newfound fixtures of the hybrid way of working. The next key thing is to understand if the figures will continue to increase or if it has peaked already; the maximum capacity number may require a different strategy altogether to handle multiple periods of surges.

In some countries in the world, it is seen as impolite to have a phone conversation when using the public transport system such as the metro. We now live in a world where calls, more specifically conference calls are the norm. On top of that, with hybrid working, a conference call with external parties may also be followed by an internal call to discuss the previous conference call. It is not uncommon to see and hear people receiving calls in London, UK by the corner of a street, in a car, in a lobby, in a cafe and occasionally in unexpected places such as the heated discussion about a potential wind farm that I overheard in a shop’s changing room. How do we draw the line of when and where it is an acceptable place to have permission to speak vocally, or perhaps not so vocally but about information that should have been discussed with more privacy and discretion? The answer to that may have a lot to do with what is culturally acceptable and vary from industry to industry, but surely it will be useful to have an unspoken rule that applies internationally.

While open plan offices were introduced around the 1960s, they offered many advantages to employees, in particular, their contribution to facilitating communication and encouraging collaborative work. On the other hand, the open plan office also resulted in some disadvantages such as being a source of noise and distraction. In embracing the new ways of working post-pandemic, the Zoom calls, Teams calls, Google Meet, Slack calls and other conference calls platforms are a staple that will remain. What does this mean for the workplace design of the future? While the occasional in-person conversations are a welcomed distraction in daily life in an open plan office, the level of noise generated from constant communication does not appear to present a conducive working environment to carry out focused tasks. Perhaps the shift in question is whether in-person office hours are simply expected to be noisier, more collaborative and not suited for focused work. An overarching question may be what are employers’ and employees’ expectations during those days when in-person attendance is mandatory? Do architects and designers need to design focused zones within large open-plan spaces? I am curious about what workplaces in the near future might be in their next evolution.

Based on recent feedback on the usage of phone booths in some shared offices in London, it appears that they do serve  their purpose because they are often fully utilised and there have also been requests for more of them to be installed. Recently, I also saw a variation of a phone booth - a double phone booth where two people can take a conference call together. It was larger than your typical single phone booth, but much small in footprint when compared to a small meeting room. Until the changing demands of working plus a commitment by employers and employees to a certain way of working, our workplaces will continue to evolve in search of the right fit. What is clear is that the once widely celebrated open plan office now has some limitations, so what are the potential solutions in tackling them for improvement? In the meantime, phone booths dotted around expected places like an office are welcomed it seems. Equally important though, in my opinion, is to begin thinking about the placement of phone booths or a design with a similar function in unexpected places where one needs access to dial into a call. For example, in a busy metro station or on the streets where the old red London telephone boxes designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott are dotted around the city. The workplace sector’s design is likely in a phase of one of its largest transformations, the solution is yet to be clear but the shifting demands are slowly becoming clearer and more defined.