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Saturday, February 9, 2013

How Offices Make People Stupid

@benhammersley at #RSAwork talks about the future of office work, and identifies some of the ways that organizations make themselves stupid. The irony is that a lot of these mechanisms were supposed to make offices more productive and efficient, and to promote collaboration and creativity. As Ben puts it

"We have optimized being on top of things rather than getting to the bottom of things."

Let's start with open plan offices. As Ben tells the story, these were introduced in an ideological attempt (supposedly originating in North California) to flatten the office hierarchy, to remove barriers between people, and to encourage people and technology to work together in perfect harmony. There are various dysfunctional versions of this Californian Ideology - see my post All Chewed Over By Machines (May 2011).

In practice, various interesting forms of behaviour emerge in open plan offices. Ben notes the widespread practice of more powerful workers grabbing the desks near to the wall, leaving juniors huddled in the middle in a state of permanent anxiety, as if they were antelope anticipating the lion's pounce.

Many offices are designed as semi-open plan, with people huddled in cubicles, but with the constant chance of someone popping a head over the partition.

In some offices, there is a deliberate policy to move people around - sometimes called hot-desking. One of the supposed benefits of this policy is that it encourages workers to constantly develop new relationships with their transient neighbours. For companies whose workers don't spend all their time in the office, this policy also reduces the amount of office space required. However, the uncertainty and anxiety of getting any desk, let alone a decent desk near the wall and away from the more irritating co-workers, might be regarded as a negative factor.

Putting aside the economics and culture and psychological impact of open plan offices, the essential justification is that they promote communication and collaboration. These elements are necessary but not sufficient for productivity and innovation in a knowledge-based organization. Not sufficient because productivity and innovation also depend on concentrated hard work.




However, many offices are not conducive to either productivity or collaboration. @mkonnikova writes, "In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction." (The Open-Office Trap, New Yorker January 2014) 

And the open plan office certainly doesn't help people focus. People are forced to defend themselves, either by doing the serious work outside the office (I find I can usually focus better in a cafe than in the office) or by donning noise-cancelling headphones to signal their unavailability for casual conversation.

Another mechanism that supports superficial communication and collaboration while destroying focus is email. For a summary of Ben's critique of email, see my post Towards the Carbon Neutral Office (Feb 2013).

Besides the technical problems with email, there are also major social problems. For example, there are organizations whose employees feel under pressure to receive and respond to emails at all times. If your boss (or a major customer) sends you an email at the weekend, you may feel obliged to answer. Some people can stand up to this kind of pressure, and ask the boss politely but firmly whether the matter can possibly wait until Monday. Others cave in, and find themselves working extreme amounts of unpaid overtime.


Both open plan offices and email can be seen as a manifestation of a deeper force undermining organizational intelligence, namely hyperactivity. In his book Crossing the Postmodern Divide (1992) Albert Borgmann extends the concept of hyperactivity to society as a whole, and defines it as "a state of mobilization where the richness and variety of social and cultural pursuits, and the natural pace of daily life, have been suspended to serve a higher, urgent cause" (p. 14).

In many contexts, hyperactivity is literally counter-productive - it impairs productivity. See for example @tonyschwartz 's opinion piece Relax! You’ll Be More Productive (New York Times 9 Feb 2013). And as @ebase tweeted from the #RSAwork event, changing the tempo of communication often improves the quality of communication.


We may find some elements of hyperactivity in organizations with low levels of motivation, where people drag themselves reluctantly to work. But it is perhaps even more common in organizations where talented and successful people are praised and rewarded for exceptional levels of effort and achievement, where everyone appears to be highly motivated, and where behaviour that doesn't conform to the hyperactive norm is regarded negatively. In an otherwise impressive presentation on Netflix Culture Freedom and Responsibility, Netflix indicates that it expects this behaviour.

"We’re all working online some nights and weekends, responding to emails at odd hours, spending some afternoons on personal time, and taking good vacations. "

Someone at the RSA commented that the traditional protection against this kind of organizational pressure was the trades union.  One purpose for collective representation was not to resist any progress, nor to see every management initiative as an opportunity to get something in return for their members, but to act as a voice against unsafe, unreasonable or unfair working conditions. Maybe it's hard to complain about the occasional weekend phonecall, but if the boss is making a habit of phoning staff at weekends, someone needs to tell him (or her) that this is not helping anyone achieve greater productivity or effectiveness.

The trades union has disappeared from many offices, there are various social and political reasons for this, and I'm certainly not going to campaign for their reinstatement. But what I think is worth noting here is that some useful feedback loops, formerly provided by trades unions, are no longer operational, and this makes it easier for organizations to spiral into uncontrolled, destructive hyperactivity.

To sum up, there are some interesting relationships between intelligence and physical environment (open plan offices) as well as some interesting relationships between intelligence and virtual environment (smartphones), together with a power structure that fails to protect people and organizations from the worst effects of these environmental factors.



See also Andrew Armour, What Happened To The Office Of The Future? Ben Hammersley Speaking At The RSA (February 2013). And see my post On Working At Home (March 2014)

Bryan Borzykowski, Why open offices are bad for us (BBC Capital, 11 January 2017)


Updated 4 Feb 2017


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