A recent Harvard Business Review article quoted Facebook's "Chief People Officer" on the company's new 430,000 square foot open plan office:

"It really creates an environment where people can collaborate; they can innovate together. There's a lot of spontaneity in the way people bump into each other, just a really fun collaborative creative space."

If that quote sounds familiar, it's because it echoes the buzzword-heavy remarks that all companies make when they move to open plan designs.

Since such statements of the benefits of open plan designs are so ubiquitous, you might assume that those benefits (collaboration, innovation, spontaneity, etc) are reflected in peer-reviewed scientific studies.

But you'd assume wrong.

Earlier today, I googled "open plan office advantages" and tried to trace down links to studies showing a positive effect of open plan designs.

Here's what I discovered: of the ten highest ranked search results, only one (1) contained link to any scientific study whatsoever. It was a study saying that says open plan offices makes people less productive.

This isn't to say that those articles didn't sing the praises of open plan offices... they did, using almost the identical wording... but with no links to studies backing their opinions, even though such links would have strengthened their case.

Of the ten highest-ranked search results, ALL were critical of open plan offices and most of contained links to peer-reviewed scientific studies showing the negative effects of open plan offices on productivity.

None contained links to peer-reviewed studies showing a positive effect. Because apparently such studies do not exist.

So here's the situation, vis-a-vis the wisdom of open plan offices.

  1. On the one hand, we've got corporate executives echoing (almost verbatim) unverifiable but "truthy-sounding" claims about the benefits of open plan offices.
  2. On the other hand, we've got multiple peer-reviewed scientific studies showing that open plan offices make people miserable and less productive.

In other words, the open plan office is nothing more than a fad that's gotten caught in the corporate echo chamber.

Executives who believe in the benefits of open plan offices are behaving exactly like climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers--they're ignoring the actual science in favor of a belief that massages their egos.

Now, perhaps you're wondering something like

  • How could all these high-successful companies be so wrong?
  • How could all these highly-intelligent executives be so dumb?
  • How could publicly-held companies spend all that money on bullsh*t?

All I can say in response is that it's happened before.

Over the years, companies have spent trillions of dollars on management fads like reengineering, six sigma, TQM, consensus management, MBO, stack ranking, etc., all of which have eventually been revealed as egregiously silly wastes of time and money.  

So, when it comes to open plan offices, you can believe me now or you can believe me later.

There will come a time when corporations come to their senses and start doing something that they should have done all along: asking employees what they need to be healthier and more productive and then (gasp!) giving it to them.

But maybe that's asking too much?