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  • Vicky Grinnell-Wright

The Open Plan Office is officially stupid. Now what?

A recent Harvard study has dubbed the Open Plan Office the ‘dumbest management fad of all time’. That is quite a claim -  I imagine that there are many contenders for such an illustrious title!


Dumbest, or just in the top-three, I wonder? Either way, the open plan office has become ubiquitous along with it’s (until now…) unquestioned management wisdom that these open spaces foster the much sought after collaboration and community which, in turn, builds irresistible cultures that deliver sustained high performance organisations. Of course, they were also hailed for cost savings as an additional benefit and yet, with the advent of remote working, third space working and the unrealised promised productivity gains from the Open space, even this has proved a hollow business case. So, if that accepted truth is in fact not true, it is inevitably time to reflect and ask: How did we ALL get it wrong?  And, more importantly, what do we do now?


Through our work at WOW Labs and in our consulting work, we commonly find that the challenge with management ideas and the resultant ‘people stuff innovation’ that has failed to shine, is that these ideas are frequently somehow exempt from the usual guardrails that routinely inhabit the world of product and service innovation. These ideas, as with all ideas, have their share of early on neighsayers who jostle with the early adopters and advocates of the new and shiny ideas, but, eventually, the tipping effect occurs and, like lemmings, in our pursuit of ‘better’ organisations both fail to challenge effectively, or develop low fidelity trials that could guide us to a robust result, strengthened through deliberate trial and error experimentation.  Instead, books and articles are published, compelling arguments are made, someone’s view wins and we rush on in with an at-scale roll-out. These types of change frequently avoid user-group testing, or any form of human-centred design thinking. Put simply, we do not prototype our people ‘stuff’ with a test and learn approach.


In our experience and research at WOW Labs, we’ve found that external due diligence for these organisational changes is often undertaken in the form of ‘find a known and large organisation which has adopted this first’ (this stops the person who implements getting fired) and assume the ‘if it is good enough for X (insert big and professional  listed org, probably a strat or consulting house), then it must be good enough for us, right?’ Wrong! Leaders lead and trend setters set trends. That does not mean that these leaders and trend setters necessarily know (with a concrete evidence base vs a hunch) where their lead will take us, or that they know what trends will work out well and without unintended consequences. These ideas are often built on a limited or shaky evidence base. So, they frequently fail. However, by this point, organisations are so invested (time, money and a not insignificant amount of bluster from the advocating group), that the show simply must go on. And so we find ourselves in an open office norm which sees human interactions dwindle, relationships flounder and productivity decline. Dare we mention it though? It feels like a Pandora's box?


We should perhaps be clear: The failure is not a failure of Open Plan Offices, nor of those who created or propagated the idea of them, in all good intention. This is a failure to adopt a Responsive mindset. The business world is awash with examples of our sometimes foolhardy approach to first, fearing change and then, side-stepping the common sense practices which would otherwise help us design, test, learn and repeat/iterate. Forced rankings and annual appraisals are a case in point; take a quick glance at Nine Lies About Work by Cisco ‘s Ashley Goodall, SVP of Leadership and Team Intelligence and quickly we can unravel some of the very (expensive and flawed) foundations upon which our people systems, tools and processes are built. As it transpires, all of the millions of hours and $ spent on rating one another is based upon a false premise that people can reliably rate other people. Goodall’s book debunks this popular myth and explains that the results of our ratings processes is that ‘wonky data’i.e. data that is typically unreliable and subject to the idiosyncratic rater effect, has for too long been allowed to determine people’s career progression and pay. However, in spite of this evidence, it is still commonplace to do the annual 360 and/or a more frequent version of peer-to-peer feedback that is now always-on and app based. More and more frequent realtime data must be better than annual data, right? Right?  Not if that data is ‘wonky’ in the first place!


Let’s look at another stubborn and widespread business assumption:  People are motivated by money. For this one, Dan Pink has successfully argued against and yet, salary and bonus conversations and processes still take up the lion’s share of attention dwarfing their more powerful motivating cousins of autonomy, mastery and purpose – all three of which have been proven to outrun salary (beyond a basic needs met in the city/country of host).


If we want to be better at creating better, perhaps we need to first and foremost getbetter…better at experimentation in our people processes, systems and tools. We need to accept that knowing about psychological safety, vulnerability, flexible working, dispersed teams, agile working and Teal is not enough by way of data for us to determine the best next steps for our own people and our specific organisation. We cannot simply take the all-in/all-out binary of: read and react, or read and reject. Neither is serving business or people well. Productivity is low. Engagement is low. Mental and physical health in the workplace is…yep…low.


If we truly want to reverse these trends we need to develop a new mindset about how we find our answers to complex questions – we need an innovation mindset and to seek a robust evidence base for our choices. We have to be prepared to create safe-to-try experiments, freedom to fail small, the license to get things tried and wrong and all of this, critically, before we have bet the house or our careers on an at-scale transformation that leave us all wondering, after the fact, how a dumb idea gained quite so much traction. Google have a People Innovation Lab and forward thinking organisations are gently weaning themselves off the ‘expert’ mindset to work in collaboration with others to find rather than know the answers. If you’d like to know more about how to build the mindset and muscle to self-solve with and for your own people, drop us a line at WOW Labs hello@wowlabs.co.uk