While Amazon has yet to select the city for its "second" headquarters, it's a good bet that wherever they pick, the building will look something like Amazon's current headquarters: an open plan office with lots of greenery.

One wonders whether anyone who might end up working there will be asked what they'd rather have: the plants or the freedom to work from home. I suspect that most people would pick freedom, were it an option.

Which increasingly not the case. According to the job referral firm Allison Taylor:

"About one-third of global corporations offered workplace flexibility options such as working from home and the elimination of strict office hours. However, this trend has now taken a downturn as many companies have discovered that when employees interact more with each other in physical environments, it can result in enhanced creativity and relationship building that lead to favorable outcomes."

I put the last part of that quote in italics because it's standard open plan office patter. As far as I've been able to tell, there's no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that open plan offices confer any benefits whatsoever. Quite the contrary. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that open plan offices (which most employees truly hate) make employees less happy, less healthy and less productive.

As with many management fads, the open plan office concept started in high tech. This is ironic because since the 1980s (at least), high tech firms have been selling technology specifically designed to make people productive when they're working remotely.

Companies like Microsoft, Apple, IBM and (later) Google spent billions of development dollars and tens of billions of marketing dollars to create what was typically called the "virtual enterprise," which was defined all the way back in 1997 as:

"...a temporary network of independent institutions, businesses or specialized individuals, who work together in a spontaneous fashion by way of information and communication technology, in order to gain an extant competitive edge."

Now those same companies are telling us that the key to collaboration and innovation is to cram everybody into one big room. Which is exact opposite of what they've been selling.

What up with that?

How did the "open plan office" replace the "virtual enterprise" as the creativity and productivity panacea? Especially considering that, unlike open plan offices, there is substantial scientific evidence that the "virtual enterprise" actually did deliver as promised.

Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have confirmed that employees are both happier and more productive when they have more control of their time generally, and the ability to work from home specifically.

The opposite is true of open plan offices. There is, in fact, a vast amount of peer-reviewed science proving that open plan offices reduce both employee happiness and productivity.

So, again, how did open plan offices suddenly replace the virtual enterprise as the ultimate management panacea?

The answer is simple. The popularity of management fads (which is what we're talking about here) is never based upon measurable science; it's always based upon what "feels right" to decision-makers within the context of the current cultural zeitgeist.

The late '90s (when the virtual enterprise was first being popularized) were all about the democratization of information, the wisdom of crowds, and the value of disseminating power downwards. Think the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and Arab Spring before it went sour. Back then, the virtual enterprise "felt right" because it fit into the way we viewed the world. The Internet will set you free.

It's mere serendipity, then, that the virtual enterprise (specifically working remotely and working from home) actually fulfilled its promise of making employees happier and more productive. Given the zeitgeist, corporations would have jumped on the virtual enterprise bandwagon even if the virtual enterprise had been a productivity s**t-show.

Today, in the Trump era, a very different zeitgeist holds sway. 

Where the virtual enterprise valued diversity, the open plan office (despite bleats to the contrary) is unabashedly tribal. Indeed, the employees inside open plan offices seem depressingly cookie-cutter in the full rigor of their informality.

Similarly, where the virtual enterprise valued autonomy, the open plan office is blankly authoritarian. While there's lip service to "collaboration," the salient characteristic of virtually all open plan offices is that only top managers are allowed privacy while everyone else is subject to look-over-your-shoulder scrutiny.

Finally, where the virtual enterprise was "in the cloud," the open plan office is aggressively "in your face." Consider, there are literally thousands of "coolest office" YouTube videos, corporate selfies that practically scream "LOOK AT ME, I'M SO HIP."

Sad, really. Because the only thing cool about a company is what it makes, not how it looks. 

Fortunately for those of us who value self over selfies and would actually like to make a contribution without suffering the stupidity of this particular management fad, it's only a matter of time before the open plan office will, like all other fads, will fall out of favor.

Not because it didn't deliver as promised (the failure of the concept is already more than clear) but because the zeitgeist will have changed.

While I can't tell you what the zeigeist is like, I suspect that the next big thing will be the "virtual reality office" where you can work from home but still hobnob with whomever, but in cyberspace rather than in a glorified hotel lobby. It will be very Gen-Z.

But that's probably a decade or more in the future. For now, it's full speed ahead for monumental open plan offices that look fantastic on video but which are, in reality, driving employees bonkers.

Published on: Jan 31, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.