Cal Newport and David Heinemeier Hansson had strong critiques of open office plans this week (Cal, David). They’re both thought provoking thinkers/writers and I understand where they’re coming from. That said, their arguments are built on the incorrect assumption that the primary purpose of open offices is to foster collaboration.
While that may be the party line, I think the two primary reasons for open offices are cost and culture. Office space is expensive and open offices are much cheaper on a per-employee basis. Cost is a powerful organizational incentive.
Culture is an often overlooked part of the discussions of open offices and is why richer technology firms have embraced open offices. Having executives work at their desks a few meters away from entry level analysts makes leadership feel more approachable and less hierarchical. It signals certain cultural values and changes the dynamic from workplaces where the goal is all about getting to that coveted corner office.
The absence of the culture variable is also the weakness in most studies on open plan offices. The effect of signaling these cultural values is hard to measure in the short term. But, just because something is hard to measure doesn’t mean it is less important.
I still think the commonly cited issues with open offices should be addressed – this critique of open offices based on their propensity to foster predatory behavior against women, for example, is important and needs to be fixed. We need more spaces and cultural norms that make it easy for people to focus. It may also be that companies with strong hierarchical cultures are just not suited for open plan offices.
The issue just isn’t as simple as is often outlined. And, it is hard to move these discussions forward if we don’t understand the trade-offs involved.