Design Fail? Open Offices Roll Out The Red Carpet For Thieves

Laptops and unassigned desk setups make it easy to work anywhere, anytime. They also make it easy to snag someone else’s stuff.

Open offices may in fact be a bit too open. Reports of burglaries are up in San Francisco’s tech-heavy neighborhoods like SOMA and the Financial District, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In one case, a robber lifted several thousand dollars of electronics from a startup called Demand Local. Another startup called BuildZoom caught a woman burglarizing its San Francisco office on video. “It’s open season on open floor plans,” Valleywag proclaimed.


Open office plans–a favorite with the tech crowd–are designed to be collaborative, inviting spaces. However, the same design elements that make open offices inviting and collaborative make them an easy target for thieves. You can’t just close the door to your office when you leave. If you don’t have an assigned desk, as is the case in some open offices, you probably also don’t have a lockable file cabinet. Laptops and tablets make it easier for workers to camp out in one of the office’s comfy lounge chairs or head outside for a bit. But they are also easy to steal, especially when the would-be burglar looks like just another employee. “We’ve also seen more burglaries where the suspects try to blend into the work place during the day,” San Francisco police spokesman Gordon Shyy told the Chronicle.

Co.Design reached out to a few architects to ask how they design for security in open office plans. The answer? Aside from keycard access to the building and perhaps an extra layer of glass for privacy-dependent departments like legal or human resources, open-office architects aren’t doing much to design secure workplaces. And perhaps that’s because they don’t have to. The beauty of a mobile, flexible workplace culture where employees are encouraged to work at all hours? People carry their laptops around the office all day, and then they take them home at night. The open office is starting to look a little like a high school, where you can either stuff something in your locker or lug it home.

Flickr user Hans Splinter

In high-rise offices, it’s fairly easy to control access to certain parts of the company through elevators and keycards that determine who can get into which floors. But there’s always the risk of “tailgaters”–lurkers who wait around for someone else to open the door, then walk in behind them. And once on the floor, open offices–designed to encourage people to move around a lot–don’t have a lot in the way of security features, at least from an design standpoint.

While some offices have laptop locks to secure tech hardware, visible security measures can undermine the whole point of an open office. “In a team, trust is paramount to a productive creative culture,” says Ryan Mullenix, a partner at NBBJ. “If everything’s locked down, there’s this immediate sense of distrust.”

To foster collaboration and team-based activity, some companies use unassigned seating arrangements like hot-desking, where employees don’t have a permanent desk of their own.”There’s this flexibility with technology that allows people to work anywhere,” says Sonya Dufner, a principal and director of workplace strategy at Gensler. “We don’t want people to start camping out at specific places.” Lockable cabinets at desks would encourage people to start staking their territorial claims, rather than rearranging themselves according to who they’re working with, so instead the firm has started incorporating lockers into its open offices. These aren’t your average lockers, though, Dufner explains. Sure, you can use it for your gym bag or bike helmet, but “some are even as advanced as having power inside them, so if you’re going to go away for a few hours and you want to recharge your laptop or your mobile device, you can put it in there,” she tells Co.Design.

Ultimately, employees have to decide whether to put those lockers to use, and their behavior is likely shaped by office culture. Especially in Silicon Valley, companies are intent on creating a playful office vibe, one that may make people more trusting about leaving their stuff out. High-tech access cards and ID badges give the illusion of security, but, in reality, those measures can be easily circumvented by a single employee holding the door open for a stranger. Even the best design can’t replace the security of employees not leaving expensive equipment lying around.


Studio O+A co-founder Primo Orpilla, who has worked with numerous tech clients, including Cisco, Square, and Yelp, says that most of his clients have tight security for their offices, including security cameras and escorts for visitors, but that internal theft is as much of a concern. Most workers keep their laptops and iPads on their person at all times, and “never let them leave their sight,” he says in an email to Co.Design.

Flickr user k2space

And no office can really be 100% theft-proof. L.A.-based architect Clive Wilkinson says that his firm plans for transparency and visibility in office designs, with lockable drawers in reception areas, but those tweaks can only do so much. “I was once in an extraordinary ‘ram raid’ in London in a client’s ground floor office,” he tells Co.Design via email. “At 6 p.m. on a weekday, when half of the 200-person staff was still in the office, a truck rammed their back doors, headlights streaming in, and men in balaclavas smashed through and grabbed laptops and other hardware, while the staff ran away screaming. It was all over in about two minutes as the truck reversed, the men jumped on and drove off.” Short of turning it into a high-security bank vault, there’s not a whole lot architects can do to make an office completely impenetrable.

In the end, the loss of a few laptops or computer monitors isn’t a huge blow, anyway–at least not for large companies. “Those have a certain value of a couple thousand dollars. What we’re finding is, what’s on them is more important,” Mullenix explains. The corporate secrets those computers might be storing can be worth more than the hardware itself. “The security is more geared toward protecting that information,” Mullenix says, through techniques like secure cloud storage.


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut