Google’s Open Office Environment is a Curse to Today’s Workplace

Lindsay Kaufman writes in the Washington Post today about something that has long bothered me about tech companies and their borg-like commitment to the Open Office Environment:

Despite its obvious problems, the open-office model has continued to encroach on workers across the country. Now, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. Silicon Valley has been the leader in bringing down the dividers. Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express are all adherents. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg enlisted famed architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world, housing nearly 3,000 engineers. And as a businessman, Michael Bloomberg was an early adopter of the open-space trend, saying it promoted transparency and fairness. He famously carried the model into city hall when he became mayor of New York, making “the Bullpen” a symbol of open communication and accessibility to the city’s chief.

These new floor plans are ideal for maximizing a company’s space while minimizing costs. Bosses love the ability to keep a closer eye on their employees, ensuring clandestine porn-watching, constant social media-browsing and unlimited personal cellphone use isn’t occupying billing hours. But employers are getting a false sense of improved productivity. A 2013 study found that many workers in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. Nearly half of the surveyed workers in open offices said the lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for them and more than 30 percent complained about the lack of visual privacy. Meanwhile, “ease of interaction” with colleagues — the problem that open offices profess to fix — was cited as a problem by fewer than 10 percent of workers in any type of office setting. In fact, those with private offices were least likely to identify their ability to communicate with colleagues as an issue. In a previous study, researchers concluded that “the loss of productivity due to noise distraction … was doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices.”

This is tremendous. My least productive gigs have always been in an open office environment. Not saying that going back to lining the walls with VP offices is the right answer.  But we believe PathWrangler has an alternative model that works much better.  Is it possible that we’ve found a way that is more productive for our company, while striving to create a culture of going against the grain, protect our values of individual free time outside of the workplace, and also environmental sustainability?

Truly collaborative work environments get stifled when you don’t allow folks long uninterrupted periods to get their shit done.  It is workplace entropy. You need a little space from others to bring it back to order. Not everyone is focused at the same time as others are around them. The ebb and flow is important. But, those folks who are in a down period, repeatedly pull those who are trying to get, or are deeply focused, out of that zone (usually unintentionally). The result is chaos.  It is a law for a reason and it doesn’t just pertain to energy.

Also, that downtime is important. People cannot be ON all the time.  In fact, there is a lot of research that supports downtime as a way to greater creativity.  But, when you aren’t on, open offices are terrible ways of protecting those that are.

It also homogenizes individuals.  The tech world is way too often accused of looking, talking and thinking the same.  This is basic group dynamics.  In order to get along, people are thrown into a “group environment” and in order to get along and move up in the workplace, you have to conform.  Rocking the boat, causing necessary disagreements with people that you have to stare at all day across from you, is not a way to encourage a culture which should prioritize unique thought and going against the grain.  You need space from people to allow these times where people need to think differently and put those thoughts into action.

Lastly, the environmental impact that the heavy footprint of making everyone come work under the same roof every minute of the day is tremendous.  This is a major issue here in San Francisco, where these incredibly well funded tech companies require everyone to be in their offices physically.  It has caused San Francisco’s rental market to explode as people want to be closer to work, but for those who living in the City isn’t their style, or they can’t afford to do it, are forced into longer and longer commutes as our infrastructure can never keep up to accommodate all these people trying to get in and out of city to work “together” during business hours.  The burden of those who typically have less disposable income, are losing less and less of their free time to be on the freeway, tubes, trains and other forms of transportation that simply can’t handle this many people at the same time.

What’s the solution?

Our company is entirely all remote. No office. We have a deeply collaborative culture, and get more done with less.

But there is a monetary benefit, too.  Rent expense goes back into the investment of our people, not an overpriced building where we build yet another hipster colony.  And the cost of that colony is way beyond just what the company pays to its landlord.  It is the expense you need to pay out to people who need more money to pay for increasing rent/mortages in overtaxed realestate markets.  Many of these people would otherwise live in other places.  Plus we eliminate entirely the commuting time to get to work.  Wouldn’t you rather spend that time getting to work in the gym, going for a hike, having dinner with your family, coaching your kid’s baseball team, or even just stabbing yourself in the eye repeatedly with a rusty fork?

When our people need to get together, we invest in meeting in interesting and unique places around the world so we can experience what we are preaching.  Our next get together will be in Columbia, staying at a wifi-enabled Airbnb rental.  Our office is the world.  And it is a heck of a lot less expensive, too.

Is our remote culture perfect?  Nothing is.  But the benefits FAR exceed the downside.

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