A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that Steve Jobs wasn't a big fan of Working Fom Home (WFH). Here's what Jobs said:

"Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas."

Since that type of collaboration is the supposed raison d'être of the open plan office, it sounds as if Jobs is endorsing the open plan office. In fact, he wasn't.

As I've pointed out in previous columns, when at Pixar and Apple, Jobs organized the workplace as a series of private offices surrounding a common area, like spokes of a wheel around a hub. This is, in many ways, the exact opposite of an open plan office.

The "hub-and-spoke" design was nothing new; it was, in fact, how most engineers had been housed for most of the 20th century, prior to the introduction of the cubicle in the late 1970s.

The big difference was that Pixar had fancy common areas, like gyms and cafes, while in the original concept, the common area hubs were the water cooler, the break room, the kitchen, and the coffee station, which is where the serendipity happened.

While these areas are still gathering places in open plan offices, there's a huge difference: a discussion in an open plan office inevitably disturbs everyone else's ability to work. The social pressure, therefore, is to not have the discussion. Or at least make it really short.

With hub-and-spoke, a discussion in the common area needn't disturb anybody else because even people whose offices are close to, say, the break room, can simply shut their office door. Furthermore, discussions between two or three people can be easily moved to a private office.

By contrast, because it's almost impossible to have a private conversation in an open plan office, such designs actually decrease the number of those serendipitous conversations that Jobs felt were so important.

What happens instead in open plan offices is that the close quarters cause people to adopt social distancing strategies like wearing noise-canceling headsets, avoiding eye contact, and using email and messaging to communicate even with people sitting next to them.

That being said, Jobs's criticism of WFH remains valid. It's absolutely true that people working from home can become disconnected from their teams. Nevertheless, WFH today is very different from WFH a decade ago.

A lot has changed in the years since Jobs's untimely death in 2011. For one thing, social networking has evolved as a new form of serendipitous communication. We've also seen rapid advances in technologies like video conferencing.

What's more, we're now on the advent of the virtual office, where virtual reality will break the bounds of physical limitation and allow meetings--serendipitous or otherwise--between people physically located anywhere in the world.

So we really don't know what Jobs would have thought about WFH today. We do know, however, that he was instrumental in creating technologies that have completely redefined what WFH is all about.