Why Open Offices Are the Answer…But Only for Now

In 1958 a German consulting group came up with an idea to break down barriers to innovation and productivity: the “landscaped office.” Desks would be arranged in an open layout, like a garden, with paths that followed the office’s work flow and paper trails. There would be “no closed doors in sight, no one boxed in, no executives enjoying a commanding view in smug corners. At most, a few mobile partitions and plants shielded certain sections and workers from others.”

By some estimates, 70 percent of US companies now have open-office plans. That’s what you’ll find at Facebook and Google. Same with Apple, whose planned headquarters—the design of which has been likened to a giant flying-saucer—are all about fluid collaboration. “It’ll provide a very open-spaced system, so that at one point in the day you may be in offices on one side of the circle and find yourself on the other side later that day.”

But it wasn’t always that way. The chemical company DuPont, where nylon was invented, was segmented into autonomous divisions protected by guards. Xerox’s Palo Alto research facility, formerly an animal behavior facility, was divided into partitioned spaces named for their previous animal inhabitants: the laser printer was perfected in the “rat room.” In the 1950s, General Electric thrived in the silo model and, in the 1990s, so did companies like Nestlé and Sony. The Sony Playstation—one of the company’s most innovative products—was developed by its stand-alone gaming department. Were these companies wrong?

No. The means to enhance creativity will always be changing. That’s to be expected, because ways of innovating require constant innovation themselves. There’s no single solution to getting productive. Soviet scientists were not given an environment like Google’s open-office plan. The scientists at NASA didn’t wear sweatpants to work; they wore shirts and slacks and ties. And yet they got into space.

There are good reasons why open-office plans have gained currency, but open offices may not be the plan of choice for all times. Instead, the right plan seems to be building a culture of change. Overly rigid habits and conventions, no matter how well considered or well intentioned, threaten innovation. The crucial take-away from analyzing office plans over time is that the answers keep changing. It might seem that there is a straight line of progress, but it’s a myth.

Surveying office spaces from the past eighty years, one can see a cycle that repeats. Comparing the offices of the 1940s with contemporary office spaces shows that they have circled back around to essentially the same style, via a period in the 1980s when partitions and cubicles were more the norm. The technologies and colors may differ, but the 1940s and 2000s plans are alike, right down to the pillars running down the middle.

1940s (Photo: courtesy of Catapult)

1980s (Photo: Ian Collins)

2000s (Photo: Phil Whitehouse)

And already, the twenty-first-century open floor plan shows signs of wearing out its welcome. “Forget the free food and drinks,” complains one former Facebook staff member. “The workplace is awful: huge rooms filled with rows and rows of picnic style tables with people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with six inches of separation and zero privacy.”

A New Yorker article entitled “The Open-Office Trap” declaims the ills of the open-office space, including unrelenting noise, awkward social encounters and greater risk of catching a cold. A spate of recent criticism spotlights the deficiencies of open plans, presumably leading towards the next part of the cycle: more closed, private office spaces.

People who have been at companies for a long time typically develop a cynicism about changing office floor plans, because it can seem to be a money-making game played by consultants. But there’s a surprising shrewdness to the constant transformations: they break up cognitive ossification. By analogy, any marriage therapist will tell you that relationships can suffer if partners become habituated and tune one another out: routines get entrenched and it becomes harder to stray from them. Whether at work or at home, change may be disruptive. But it’s hard to sustain fresh thinking without it.

The poster child for constant change was Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Building 20. Built as a temporary structure during a Second World War steel shortage, the warehouse-sized, three-story “plywood palace” was supposed to be torn down as soon as the war ended. But the university was short of space and got permission from the fire department to leave it standing. Over time, faculty from across the university gravitated to it, reshaping it to fit their needs.

As one professor put it, “If you don’t like a wall, just stick your elbow through it.” Said another, “If you want to bore a hole in the floor to get a little extra vertical space, you do it. You don’t ask. It’s the best experimental building ever built.”

The goal of a creative corporation is to escape repetition suppression, proliferate options, and disrupt what’s working well before it wears out its welcome.

The building’s improvisatory landscape encouraged chance encounters and an easy exchange of ideas: within its walls was an eclectic hodgepodge, including “a particle accelerator, the R.O.T.C., a piano repair facility, and a cell-culture lab.” Nuclear physicists worked near food researchers. In that ramshackle building, Noam Chomsky developed his pioneering theories about human language, Harold Edgerton pursued high-speed photography and Amar Bose patented his loudspeakers. The first video game was invented there, and a host of tech companies were born. The building came to be known as the “magical incubator.” As Stewart Brand wrote in his book How Buildings Learn:

“Building 20 raises a question about what are the real amenities. Smart people gave up good heating and cooling, carpeted hallways, big windows, nice view, state-of-the-art construction, and pleasant interior design for what? For sash windows, interesting neighbors, strong floors, and freedom.”

Working long-term in a temporary building is typically not an option. So a culture of change can be cultivated in other ways: swapping offices, reconfiguring the rooms, changing free time policies, or switching up teams. Put the coffee machine here, paint the walls blue, install a foosball table, tear down the walls for an open-floor space with cement floors and rolling chairs.

But don’t set anything in stone, because the model that works now may not work in five years time. Nor is it the point that those models last forever. Instead, the goal of a creative corporation is to escape repetition suppression, proliferate options, and disrupt what’s working well before it wears out its welcome. Innovation is energized by upsetting routine.

From The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2017 by Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman.