Can you feel it? The massive crush of corporate peer pressure being put on people to join the open-floor-plan movement, to jump on the collaboration bandwagon? Otherwise you’re labeled “old school,” someone who doesn’t understand the new world of thinking. Or worse yet, you’re pegged an elitist, power-hungry snob who clings to old-fashioned status symbols, and wants a big, Mad Men corner office with a bar and a Joan-like secretary.
Oh yeah, there’s a giant pitcher of open-floor-plan Kool-Aid being served and drank by people in offices across America.
Well, I’m spitting mine out.
While the open-floor plan and “collaborating” are all the rage, I lived it for several years. I sat at a table with five other people. No dividers, no book shelves, no nothing. That was the layout as far as the eye could see, table upon table of workers, some with six, some with eight, some with four. And despite all the open-floor-plan propaganda, I must conclude: it is better in theory than in practice. Why? Because the very premise is loaded with fallacies. Here are five.
Fallacy #1: People will collaborate more in an open-floor-plan
Wrong. They will “communicate” more. But communication is not collaboration. It’s just an exchange of information. And let’s face it, between, email, IM, texting, snail mail, cell phone, regular phone, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., there are already waaaaaaay too many ways to communicate.
We already spend the majority of the day communicating, probably because communicating is easier than doing actual work. Anyone can sip a cup of coffee, shoot the breeze, and pawn it off as “working.”
And what’s really being communicated? How your kid was a tree in the school play last night? (He was excellent by the way). The season’s hot new nail polish color? How the Knicks stink again this year? Or more realistically, all the world’s gripes, and complaints. Because in corporate America (and life), almost every conversation starts with 10-minutes of warm-up bitching.
What we really need is less communicating and more thinking, more doing, more creating. That’s what work is really about.
Fallacy #2: Newer, fresher ideas come from an open-floor dynamic.
The real driving concept of the open-floor plan is to encourage additional collaboration, which will spark new, fresh thinking, and in turn, breakthrough ideas. In over four years, I never saw someone say something, have somebody else overhear it, then build on it spontaneously, and turn it into a brilliant, new idea because of the open-floor plan. What does happen often is people overhear things they shouldn’t, they gossip, they spread rumors, and bad things quickly make their way around the office…because of the open floor plan. Which means the main thing people in an open-floor plan collaborate on is distraction.
In my opinion the newest, freshest ideas are never found in the shallow pond of “collaborative” brainstorming, but always in the deep waters of individual thought. Advertising Hall of Fame Member, Charles Brower said it brilliantly “The good ideas are all hammered out in agony by individuals, not spewed out by groups.”
You can’t collaborate your way to a good idea. I would go as far as to say the people most in a hurry to collaborate are the ones with the least amount of ideas. They look to lean on others rather than face that daunting white page alone. People who are very confident in their ability to have ideas, don’t need a group to help them ideate.
Rarely can multiple people collaborate on an idea. That’s why bands break up. Collaboration starts AFTER you have an idea, not before. That’s when it’s a brilliant thing! When you have an actual idea to collaborate around. Everyone takes it, performs their particular expertise on it, and builds it out to amazing places. But collaborating before the idea, is too early in the process. That’s when people say “a camel is a horse designed by a committee.”
Fallacy #3: After a short time in the open-floor plan, people will learn to read body language.
Most people have a hard time understanding normal, spoken language. They don’t listen. They hear what they want to hear. If they can’t understand the 2X4 of verbal language, what makes us think they will have the radar, and nuance to understand the subtleties of body language?
So what happens? You get hit with a barrage of constant interruptions. The bargers, who step right up and start talking because there’s no wall. The hoverers, who hang behind until you feel this creepy lurking presence, and acknowledge them. The gossips who want to talk about everything (more likely everyone) but work. And a host of other, all-day-long inane requests that a door would’ve eliminated.
The net result: it disrupts your flow, breaks your rhythm, and inevitably happens right when you’re climaxing on a brilliant thought. Getting to greatness takes concentrated effort. It doesn’t come in the 45-second cracks between disruptions.
So how do we avoid all this in the open-floor plan? We become isolated, head-phoned drones working away in rows of massive tables. And that’s just sad, not to mention the exact opposite of collaborating.
Fallacy #4: The open-floor plan flattens out hierarchy, and that is a good thing.
I truly believe great ideas can come from anywhere. But I also believe day-one equality for all in corporate America breeds a massive sense of entitlement, and the rampant feeling that “I know as much as you do,” when in most cases, no you don’t, not yet anyway.
A certain amount of class structure in business is a good thing. Abuse of it is a bad thing. The right kind of hierarchy should be based on real experience. Some people have been doing it longer, have more great work under their belt, and should be in a higher position. And they should be mentoring the incoming people. The art of training an employee has long been cut from the budget. No wonder so many people flail around. No one trained them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying experience automatically equates to skill or talent. I have seen many people spend years creating mediocrity over and over again. But those people shouldn’t be working at your company.
Also, in a creative job of any kind, all you own are your ideas. When your idea becomes everyone’s idea, you’ve lost any leverage. Companies like to flatten it all out because then no single person can be valued enough by a client to potentially take a piece of business. So “collaboration” makes ideas everyone’s and no one’s. And by default, all ideas become the property of the company, the boss. I think Mussolini would’ve liked that idea.
Fallacy #5: The open-floor plan is good for creative energy
There’s something to be said for united human energy, so long as it gets directed to the right task, and not haphazardly splattered across an open space. So maybe this one’s not a fallacy. Maybe an open-floor plan really is good for that.
Here are numerous other things it’s good for, and none of them help the creative energy.
-It’s good for architects. They get to redesign space, and publish spreads in glossy trade magazines.
-It’s good for budgets. At its core, the open-floor plan is a cost-cutting maneuver, like everything else these days. How can I save money? I got it, cut out walls, ceilings, doors, furniture and carpeting. Bingo!
-It’s good for policing people. The Big Brother design allows bosses to constantly watch employees to see who shows up late, who leaves early.
-It’s good for forcing you to be an extrovert, even if you’re not. Not everyone is a “people person,” in fact, many talented creatives are socially awkward and mildly reclusive. Forcing them into a table of eight, does not help their creative process. (See Susan Cain’s excellent book “Quiet” about the power of introverts.)
The open-floor plan is fine for a “doing” job, but not for a “thinking” job. If you’re yelling across the room to each other, “get me this, call so-and-so,” it works. If you’re trying to think of the next brilliant idea, it doesn’t.
So I don’t just rant, let me offer up my proposal for the ideal workspace. A perimeter of offices, all the same size, so there are no conspiracy theorists who think the higher ups are trying to pad their egos with square footage. Each office has glass walls looking out toward the center. In the center are community spaces, couches, coffee, etc., and a few “open work” spaces. This layout takes the best intentions of the open-floor plan, and combines it with the reality of doing business. In business, you need to think, you need to have private conversations. Offices with walls allow for that, but glass walls allow you to see who is out there, so it can spark spontaneous, collaborative interactions.
The bottom line: I don’t think the open-floor plan helps the work get any better. And, in my opinion, that’s the only reason to do it. Otherwise why?