Numerous studies prove that Open Plan Offices make employees both less healthy and less productive, with scant benefits. Why, then, do so many executives continue to embrace these disastrous work environments? Here's the sad truth:

1. Faddishness

The past thirty years have seen the rise and fall of a dozen management fads including TQM, Six-Sigma, Matrix Management, Consensus Management, 300 Year Business Plans, Chaos Management, Core Competence, Reengineering, and Step-Ranking, just to name a few.

Each fad was introduced with great fanfare (often by a best-selling book), generated a horde of management consultants to implement the panacea, and then--when it failed to fulfill its promise--disappeared into the "let's forget we wasted time and money on this" zone.

The management fads du jour are Open Plan Offices, Collaboration and "agile teams." Executives embrace these fads--and the tedious biz-blab that goes along with them--because it makes them feel as if they're "cool" and "modern."

2. Laziness

In theory, managing people is easy. You can learn almost everything you need to know (intellectually) about how to manage people by reading a single book, The One-Minute Manager.

In practice, however, management is hard work. It requires the perception to understand people's motivations, the persistence to direct people towards a common goal, the patience to deal with inevitable hassles, and the courage to make the hard calls.

Management fads always promise to make managing easy. Why bother with the hard work of managing people, when you can just "bring people together into a collaborative environment where they'll create self-directed teams?"  Then you can sit back and relax.

3. Ostentation

Most management fads are invisible to the outside world. Open Plan Offices, however, provide executives with an opportunity to impress visitors, thus playing a role identical to that played by fancy outside architecture and plush receptionist atriums.

After all, there's nothing interesting about hallways full of doors, while cubicle farms (which were all the rage back in the day) are just plain ugly. The Open Plan Office, by contrast, offers a photogenic vista of bustling workers.

Indeed, upon completion of their Open Plan Offices, many companies bring in a video crew to document how "forward-looking" they are. Such videos are sometimes unintentionally ironic, like in this Google "showplace" where employees have desperately tried to create private zones by stacking books and papers around their work areas.

4. Grandiosity

While Open Plan Offices are supposed to create collaboration and teamwork, have you ever noticed that the executives always manage to have private offices? Don't they feel the need to participate in the collaborative teams that they claim are going to make the company successful?

The private offices, of course, are status symbols. This is similar to traditional offices (think Mad Men), where the big boss gets the corner office, the lesser managers get offices with views, lesser professionals get windowless offices, whilst the hoi-polloi have office-less desks.

The Open Plan Office, however, more strongly emphasizes the gulf between executives (who are allowed privacy) and everyone else (who is not). Reducing all non-executives to the level of clerical help increases the symbolic value of the private office perk.

5. Mistrust

In an Open Plan Office, a manager can easily check whether employees are doing things they shouldn't, like playing computer games, reading the news, or texting their friends. (Using their own cell-connected device, obviously, rather than their monitored desk PC.)

Just as important, such activities are also visible to tattlers and gossipers who want to curry the boss's favor with the boss by reporting the misdeeds of others. That's smart... if you think East Germany--where everyone informed on everyone else--was a model of good management.

By contrast, how can an executive expect employees to trust in her leadership and vision if the executive mistrust them so much that expects employees rat out each other out?

6. Denialism

Millions of people ignore overwhelming evidence that climate change is real and caused by human beings. Millions more ignore overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccination saves lives and doesn't cause autism.

Is it really that surprising, then, many executives are unwilling to rethink their investments in the open plan concept, even as the scientific evidence accumulates that such offices are a productivity and health disaster?

Executives, more than most people, are reluctant to admit their mistakes because that makes them vulnerable to being fired. Instead, they "throw good money after bad" or "double-down" (like IBM cancelling "work from home") when a touted strategy fails.

Published on: Jun 5, 2017
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.