Innovative Office Space Is A Waste of Time

Picture yourself visiting the hottest start-up that many only dreams of touring. You open the main door to see a cool vintage looking freight elevator, and taking up a few floors, the anticipation builds finally revealing one of the coolest spaces you’ve ever seen. Could this innovative or open office space be the reason they achieve their unsurpassed level of creativity? Are open workspaces the key? No. Not even close.

Great spaces are often praised for their ability to generate creative ideas. Research has even found carefully considered interiors aid in collaboration and innovation. And what of those cubicles we love to hate? Nearly 81 percent of offices in one study are ditching the cube in favor of the open office that research has shown helps us feel more like a team. But, the great space migration isn’t producing the results expected.

Employees are expressing their dissent of the open workspace concept and negative feedback is well-documented. Workers in offices receive fewer interruptions. An open workspace layout is a guarantee of more disruption due to noise and less privacy. And if it’s not enough to constantly check to see if someone’s looking over your shoulder, others lament their increased difficulty focusing. It seems to go beyond simple growing pains.

Research from Kristine Woolsey, a former Arizona State architecture professor and presently, the national director of CarrierJohnson +Culture, suggests an alternative work set-up instead of a completely open office or workspace. Her findings suggest office spaces should be designed more like a jail, fitting people into groups or pods. Groups or pods of six are preferable for an engaging work environment instead of a giant open office. Six seems to be her magic number — too few people and a power struggle emerges, too many and voices aren’t heard. Before you try it out though, even Woolsey’s concept isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

In her TED talk, a self-proclaimed introvert, Susan Cain who strongly dislikes working in groups at all, discusses the open office concept being designed with the intentions of converting introverts to extroverts. Cain openly criticizes the pod concept as it sees acceptance in our schools, and appears to stand against the model that Woolsey’s research shows works so well. So, who is correct?

With many intelligent people pointing to vastly different conclusions on what space design sparks innovation, productivity, and creativity, are we missing something? I don’t think so. In fact, I think the American workforce simply has no idea what it wants and never has.

The workspace vs open workspace debate has raged on for decades and Nikil Saval, the author of Cubed has some interesting details. Clerks working in the 1860s, worked next to each other in rows of desks, separated by nothing but their individual tasks at hand. It resembled the open office. But by the 1920s walls started to go up as executives broke away into their own private offices, leaving workers in their open office. The bosses would wade back and forth through this ocean of busybodies ensuring everyone stayed productive. But by this time, another change was already in the making.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, working for The Larkin Company in 1904, was envisioning a better workspace that would make the average startup jealous. His concept was said to “free the American worker” complete with open spaces, lots of natural light, and grouped desks. He went as far to design restrooms with leather chairs, player pianos and a place to decompress. It sounds familiar, but though the work environment was better, it supposedly did little to inspire better work. Wright wasn’t the only one with visions of better workspace.

European brothers Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle observed an opportunity to change the workspace as well. Breaking off their father’s architecture business, they ended up developing Bürolandshaft or “office landscape.” The organic form appeared chaotic and unorganized, but it ended up catching on in parts of Europe, even making it across the Atlantic. Its focus on collaboration and interaction, however were seemingly dismissive of other important work aspects such as introspection and concentration. But the great office space / open office / who-the-heck-knows debate wasn’t finished.

In the 1960s two men, armed with aesthetic prowess and cutting edge research made significant headway. Robert Propst and George Nelson working for Herman Miller, developed an office work environment product named Action Office. Designed to make employees more free and productive, it featured open spaces, great design, high quality materials and an environment that would keep employees moving and engaged. But despite receiving awards and recognition, Action Office didn’t catch on.

The materials used were too expensive and overall, bosses simply didn’t like the change. Propst separated from Nelson and re-designed the concept later relaunching it as Action Office 2. The New York Post said a “Revolution Hits the Office.” Herman Miller actively promoted the concept, and launched a lecture series on their system being the future of creative office work, but after knock-offs hit the market, Herman Miller rolled out square designs built to save space, and to Propst’s dismay, and perhaps even yours, the cubicle of today was born. But does any of this really matter?

Consider Zappos, who many argue to be truly innovative, has the very cubicles many companies believe hinders their creativity and productivity. Yes, they are allowed to dress up their spaces to extreme degrees, but what does this mean for the rest of us? Are office designers after the whole open workspace failure, simply going to make trendier cubes? Should we dress up our cubs to bring about this oft craved innovative and engaged spirit? Shoud we ditch them? Are the 81 percent of American businesses making the jump to open office wrong or right? The answer is yes.

Most companies are falling into is a causation-correlation fallacy in their oversimplification of office work. They see productive Silicon Valley companies offering ultra-hip spaces and seeing no difference in anything other than the space employees work in, make the change. And in doing so, they miss a key office design category that many of these companies are actually performing at their highest creative potential. The American garage.

A BMW commercial and a Cadillac commercial (that completely ripped it off) make the case: Incredible things happen in garages. The commercials mention Amazon, Apple, Google, Motown, HP, Disney, and Mattel were garage-forged companies. Therefore, if these success stories are any indication, using the same correlation-causation mistake, could I suggest making creative teams is as simple as providing cobweb-filled garages as workspaces? What about a drafty warehouse?

Clif Bar is another interesting example. Operating out of a damp warehouse in its early days, the company was oozing creativity, engagement, and collaboration, encouraging productivity. Seemingly, people loved working there despite six people sharing four computers, and having forklifts buzz by their desks, some of which were made of shipping palettes.

But as the company grew they were able to improve the workspace, but the results weren’t as expected. Employees actually started to hate working at the company — longing for the early warehouse days. “When I started I was the 15th employee. I wonder how we can survive to be that once cool little company we were a few years ago,” said an early employee in the founder, Gary Erickson’s book, Raising the Bar. They were a part of something and that’s what changed. Workspace was irrelevant.

Will we ever know if a open workspace, or any space for that matter, makes you more creative and innovative at all? Is there a secret blend of privacy, openness or modular…ness? Can we solve the noise and focus problems since the inception of the Bürolandshaft concept? Should we just stuff everyone in warehouses, much to the delight of our CFOs, but probably at the behest of our CHRO? It’s my belief that no matter what you do to the space your employees work in, it won’t make them creative or engaged. Instead, I believe this particular solution requires thinking IN the box.

So, do we need the open office or not?

The men or women in the space are clearly more important than space itself. Focusing on the open workspace, private rooms or the like and failing to focus on the treatment, encouragement, and empowerment of your employees is the takeaway here. And if you can’t see that — you’re wasting everyone’s time.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Washington Post August 6, 2014. You can read it here.

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