In a previous column, I explained why open plan offices are now officially the dumbest management fad of all time. According to numerous peer-reviewed studies over the past three decades, open plan offices decrease productivity, make employees sick, and reduce morale. They neither save money nor increase "collaboration."

Why are so many companies (i.e. so many top executives) embracing a strategy that's so obviously unproductive and which employees almost universally dislike? 

I originally assumed the continued growth of open plan offices (now around 70% of all offices in the U.S.) was a victory of biz-blab over science--the corporate equivalent of anti-vaccination and climate change denial. However, since open plan offices are so obviously stupid, I've concluded there must be something deeper at work here--a hidden agenda.

What could it be?

A clue to this hidden agenda may lie in the undeniable fact that while executives want their employees to work in these open plan environments, they almost always secure private offices for themselves.

Another clue may lie in the way that the growth in open plan offices matches declines in work-from-home policies, private offices, and cubicle offices, all three of which offer varying levels of privacy for regular employees which open plan offices totally lack.

The unifying theme is that executives want employees to remain physically visible and constantly on display while simultaneously retaining their own right to remain invisible. This desire must be something that's highly valuable to top management for them to be willing to pay such a huge tax in productivity and morale.

I'm not talking about a conspiracy. Nobody got together, twirled their metaphorical mustaches, and with a "brou-ha-ha-ha" decided to stick it to their employees. No, what's operating here is something more subconscious, like confirmation bias. It's a cultural thing and therefore largely unexamined, like most hidden agendas.

So, then, what deeply hidden need does the open plan office serve?

One obvious answer is the need to control the employee behavior--a need to which executives (who are often quite insecure about their ability to lead without ordering people about) are particularly susceptible.

However, while it is no doubt easier to control people when you can constantly look over their shoulders, that kind of monitoring can be done electronically. Since employees have no privacy rights, there's nothing to stop companies from monitoring their behavior online. Big Brother doesn't need to be physically present to stick his nose in your personal business.

If the deeper need is not a simple desire to control employee behavior, what could that need be? 

One well-documented effect of open plan offices is that constant visibility puts women at a disadvantage by forcing them to expend extra energy focusing on their physical appearance. However, it's not just women who suffer from being forced into a fishbowl. Open plan environments also put at disadvantage those employees who are overweight, disabled, or in any way fail to conform to American standards of conventional attractiveness, i.e.young, thin, and light-skinned.

For example, open plan offices are vehemently hostile to older workers (Gen-X and above) because as one ages, it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve that cultural standard of conventional attractiveness.

Furthermore, some elements of open plan designs--such the ubiquitous workplace playground slide--are specifically intended to humiliate older workers. To a 20-year-old, using playground slide is merely embarrassing; to a 40-year-old it's actively humiliating; to a 60-year-old, it's a recipe for a chiropractic appointment.

Saying that open plan offices favor younger, conventionally attractive workers is not to say that millennials actually LIKE them. Quite the contrary. If anything, millennials dislike the distractions and noise more than their older cohorts. 

Rather than attracting millennials, open plan offices help top management eliminate or dis-empower workers who aren't young, conventionally-attractive, generally light-skinned and male--the exact demographic from whence sprang the majority of top managers. While such environments also tolerate young, conventionally-attractive females, the fishbowl-like characteristic of open plan offices guarantees that they'll kept off-balance and "in their place" by being put constantly on display.

If you're following this argument, it should be abundantly clear at this point why firms that embrace the open plan office continue to struggle with sexism, racism and ageism, and why so many high tech firms (which have open plan on steroids) suffer so frequently from bouts of sexual harassment. It's not just a toxic culture; it's a toxic culture reinforced by a toxic workplace design.

The open plan office, far from being a forward-looking vehicle to create collaboration and innovation, is simply a means of maintaining the dominance of older, light-skinned males, a dominance that expresses itself in everything from the demographics of Fortune 500 C-suites to the investment choices of venture capitalists.

That open plan offices tend to reinforce the patriarchy seems less surprising when you consider that the original concept of the open plan office dates not from the so-called "information age" but from the early years of 20th century, when companies--to increase paper-pushing efficiency--started arranging office workers' desks inside large rooms called "bullpens." 

While open plan offices have been around for nearly 100 years, companies have occasionally experimented with other workplace designs like private offices, cubicles, and telecommuting. Those experiments, however, fell out of favor because, even though they raised productivity and increased morale, they accomplished those goals by granting employees privacy, which weakened the power of top-down management to enforce cultural norms.

Companies have consistent returned to open plan designs not because they make employees more productive (they don't) nor because employees find them inspiring places to work (they don't) but because open plan offices reinforce the status quo--the same status quo that's kept women and minorities out of positions of power, and that favors a younger, cheaper, more malleable workforce that's less likely to challenge the dominance of the traditional powers-that-be.

Published on: Oct 10, 2018
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