In my last column, I described how open plan offices, by their very design, greatly decrease the likelihood of collaboration actually taking place, despite the fact that they were sold to the business world as collaboration enhancers.

Every time I write about open plan offices, people comment or tweet something to the effect of "What's the solution? Cubicles?" Uh, no. While cubicles with high partitions do dampen noise a bit, they have the same problems as open plan:

  • You can't have an animated conversation without bothering other people.
  • You can't have an impromptu meeting without bothering other people.
  • You must move conversations elsewhere which kills serendipity.
  • You can't patch somebody in by speakerphone without going elsewhere.

Both open plan offices and cubicle farms discourage the very activities and behaviors that might be characterized as "collaborative." So, then, if cubicles aren't the solution, what is? Glad you asked:

Solution 1: Work From Home

If the majority of the communications at an office is taking place via text and email anyway, then why do you need an office at all? Indeed, there are several successful high tech companies that don't have headquarters; everyone works from home.

(Note: a recently Stanford University study revealed that, all thing considered, implementing work from home was probably the world's most effective management strategy.)

In a total Work From Home environment, there's a lot of emailing, one-on-one meetings take place on the telephone, group meetings take place on Skype (or something similar), and group activities are coordinated on Slack (or something similar).

The two big advantages of total Work From Home is that you don't have to rent space for your offices (a huge cost-savings) and your employees can live anywhere in the world (although wildly different time zones can make meetings a challenge.

Another possible approach would be a hybrid, where people work from home most of the time, but convene for in-person meetings at a central location every week or so. (Team members in other areas Skype ias usual.) This means renting space, but not 24/7. 

Both the total Work From Home and a hybrid is basically a rejection of the notion that serendipitous meetings are crucial to success. It also a rejection of the notion that office work should involve a lot of socializing.

According to science, BTW, Work From Home doesn't just make employees "massively" more productive, it also makes them happier, too. Because they have control over their schedule, employees get far more done on average.

Being a manager in such environments requires a lot of planning and coordination because you can't count on peer pressure to keep everyone moving in the same direction. Even so, the cost is far less than an open plan.

Solution 2: The Pixar Hub

Let's suppose, however, that you're absolutely wedded to the idea of chance meetings and serendipitous conversations.

It's certainly not an unrealistic viewpoint. Early stage engineering projects, for example, often require a great deal of brainstorming and "bouncing ideas around" to come up with designs or creative implementation of a design.

Similarly, there's probably some value in setting up conditions where employees from different groups, say Marketing and Engineering, socialize together. In theory, at least, this reduces organizational stovepipes.

If that's what you truly want to happen, an open plan office is probably the worst possible way to encourage it because, with open plan, any of those activities disturb other people who are trying to accomplish individual work.

If you want employees to be able to do individual work (in the peace and quiet required for such work) but still want there to be serendipitous meetings (that don't disturb people trying to do individual work) the solution is what I've started calling the "Pixar Hub."

A Pixar Hub consists of private offices surrounding a hub of common recreational area. While this design was common in high tech in the 70s and 80s, it reached the peak of perfection at Pixar under (who else?) Steve Jobs.

The private offices don't just provide the peace and quiet required for sustained work. They also double as impromptu meeting places for small groups of people (like 2 to 4, depending upon the size of the office.)

The common recreational area--which is emphatically NOT to contain workspaces--is where employees from different groups meet and relax. That's where the serendipitous meetings take place. It's the old water cooler writ large.

It need hardly be said that a Pixar Hub is going to cost more than an open plan office and WAY more than Work From Home design. But unlike open plan offices, the Pixar Hub actually does increase collaboration.

One note about the cost... If I were responsible for creating a Pixar Hub, I'd be looking to convert an abandoned mall. The rent is dirt cheap, and they're already arranged into clusters (of shops) around a common area. Just a thought...