Last week, Tom Gimbel, the founder and CEO of LaSalle Network (a Chicago-based job recruiting firm) fired a broadside at my recent post explaining why open plan offices are the dumbest management fad of all time.

While I respect anyone who is courageous enough to found and run a successful company--especially in such a competitive field as recruiting--I'm afraid that on this issue Gimbel is viewing the situation through CEO-colored glasses.

While Gimbel's full post is definitely worth reading, for the convenience of the reader I've quoted his salient arguments prior to discussing them:

Gimbel: "Open offices aren't new. Companies and executives have known they work for salespeople and traders for decades. So why not do it for everyone?"

Salespeople traditionally don't have offices because it's assumed that they spend most of their time on the road visiting customers. The same is true of newspaper reporters, another possibly more relevant example that Gimbel missed.

Stockbrokers and traders were put into a bullpen (like the NYSE) because they traditionally made deals with other brokers by yelling their offers over the noise of the crowd. Since that's increasingly not the case, that justification no longer exists.

Interestingly, though, the "everyone" that Gimbel cites seldom (if ever) seems to include the CEO. If open plan offices are such a wonderful idea, why not literally for everyone? Perhaps Gimbel doesn't have a private office? If so, kudos; he's the exception that proves the rule.

Gimbel: "If you hire a staff directly out of college, how do they learn the basics of 'work?'  Little things like crafting an email, talking through a conversation when you see someone's eyes and body language, or team collaboration."

The US school system, alas, has been borrowing heavily from the open plan concept, and now often seems to value socialization over academics. From what I understand, recent graduates have no problem whatsoever with socializing at work or the reading of body language. Also, as "digital natives" they're hardly strangers to email.

From what I understand, thoug, few recent graduates can write a coherent paragraph. Certainly that's cause for intervention but writing is emphatically NOT a group-based skill. 

Improvement in writing skills is most likely to result from being repeatedly edited and corrected--an activity conducted more easily remotely than face-to-face since, when it comes to writing, body language is at best an irrelevant distraction.

Gimbel: "One of the best things about an office is when someone who wasn't part of a meeting happens to stumble in, add value, and problems are then solved."

Really? Wouldn't it be more likely that somebody joining the meeting would not really understand what's going on and have to be updated on what's been said? And wouldn't that person be just as likely to create new problems rather than solve them?

I can't help but wonder if, in Gimbel's scenario, the person stumbling into the meeting and solving the problem is ideally Gimbel himself, in which case we'd need to know the private thoughts of his employees to determine whether his inputs were helpful or not.

Gimbel: "Great company culture comes from seeing one another. Corporate culture doesn't purely come from growing revenue (although it's on the must-have list). Great culture comes from personal sharing, getting to know someone and their life, and caring about them so much you want to help each other in the workplace. That's a team."

Fair enough. But is it really that good a thing to be seeing all your coworkers all the time? After all, familiarity breeds contempt and good fences make good neighbors. Plus--let's face it--we've all worked with people who are best appreciated in *very* small doses. 

In any case, Gimbel argues against work-from-home as if that were the only alternative to the open plan, when private offices or offices shared by two or three workers is a perfectly viable alternative.

Indeed, the most productive and creative environment I've worked within used that model.

There were plenty of informal meetings, but they happened in offices where other people didn't have to listen to something that wasn't relevant to them. If somebody else's opinion was wanted or needed, either the meeting gravitated to that person's office or somebody went and fetched them.

Meanwhile, the other 70 programmers in the building were still able to continue coding without being forced to listen in. 

Gimbel: "There's nothing wrong with companies saving money."

I think Gimbel is referring to saving money by having a smaller footprint, thereby reducing rent. I've already addressed this issue in detail; the statistical drop in productivity (based upon research)  offsets any floor-space-based cost reduction.

Gimbel: "Have you ever tried to celebrate alone? It's not much fun."

Actually, I'm perfectly happy to celebrate alone; like many introverts I find parties draining rather than enjoyable. In a corporate setting, "celebrations" can feel mandatory; yet another opportunity to suffer the excesses of the office extraverts.

I hate to break the news to Gimbel but when he's presiding over his celebrations and getting to know about the lives of his employees, a percentage of them--perhaps a large percentage if he works with creatives--wish secretly they were elsewhere.

Gimbel: "People write articles poking holes at what companies do all the time. It gets eyeballs and readers and creates a buzz."

The articles that create "buzz" are the ones that strike a nerve, and in this case, the nerve being struck is the undeniable fact that almost everyone--other than CEOs and commercial architects--actively dislike their open plan offices and wish they had more privacy. (Tweet this post if you agree.) 

In any case, my remarks about open plan offices don't so much "poke a hole" as point out that the emperor is buck naked.

And, finally, this:

Gimbel: "I always revert to the Google theory: If they are doing it, it can't be too dumb -- and they have a huge office."

Sure, thousands of successful companies have open plan offices; so do thousands of companies that go out of business. If everyone is doing the same thing, how could that thing possibly be determining success or failure? 

This isn't even a case of correlation not being causation. There's not even any correlation to misinterpret. But just for the sake of argument, let's accept Gimbel's "Google theory" at its face value. Is *everything* that Google does a good idea?

For example, Google's workforce is mostly white and male, a staffing strategy that the company famously seems unable (read: secretly unwilling) to significantly change. Does Gimbel see a lack of diversity as an "if they are doing it, it can't be too dumb" strategy? 

Gimbel's "Google theory" thus reveals the weakness of his entire argument, which eschews both logic and science in favor of the "received wisdom" that open plan offices are a productivity panacea. In fact, extensive research shows that open plan offices:

And then there's the Harvard study I cited in my "dumbest fad" post, which described research showing that open plan offices don't increase collaboration, the supposed reason that they're being implemented.

In short, the scientific verdict on open plan offices is clear: they're a dumb idea that caught on based upon preconceived notions of what ought to make people more productive rather than on scientific research into what actually makes workers productive.

Published on: Jul 30, 2018