The Open Office Comes to Silicon Valley

An October 15, 2007 Wall Street Journal article titled Why Silicon Valley Is Rethinking The Cubicle Office explains how companies such as Cisco Systems, Intel, Autodesk, and Hewlett-Packard are either testing or planning tests with the open office concept. The motivations are space savings as well as improved collaboration and communication.
We’ve written in favor of the open office as an enabler of Lean culture often in the past. We believe that structuring the workspace to be more flexible, visual and collaborative is essential to all work done in a Lean fashion. While there is no prescriptive open office design, removing barriers to communication makes sense when they are a root cause of problems in communication and the quality of information flow.
In addition to our own offices (one of which is pictured below) several of our clients have jumped into this, and though not without struggle, they have found the conversion to open office rewarding.

The WSJ article states:
Behind such tests is a growing recognition that classic, Dilbert-style cubicles have many shortcomings. For one thing, they tend to block visibility without blocking much noise from other cubes.

The article also offers some sound advice on preparing for an open office:
• Survey the work force. Would employees welcome a change?
• Talk to peers. Have other firms tried new office layouts?
• One style won’t fit all workers. Some collaborate; others work alone.
• Offer drop-in spaces for road warriors and telecommuters.
• Consider “quiet zones” for concentration and confidentiality.
• Esthetics count. Natural lighting and pleasant colors can boost morale.

The only point above I would take issue with is the first one “Would employees welcome a change?” Of course not. People don’t like change. Especially if they are used to Microsoft-style private offices. And yet change is not something we can avoid. Rather than survey the workforce, educate them on the pros and cons of the open office and gain consensus that this is the way to go to expose problems and continuously improve.
In a world that increasingly values process excellence as well as collaborative innovation, sooner or later, cubicles will have to go. Although I’ve never had to work in one, I can’t imagine of any benefits of cubicles. Privacy perhaps?
“It gives you this incredibly false sense of privacy,” said Carl Bass, chief executive of software maker Autodesk Inc., who is pushing for more open layouts at his own company.

In the first three minutes of this video, Conan O’Brien takes a humorous look at the cubicle farm at Intel, and there’s also a slapstick factory tour after minute 3:30.
Here’s another waste that an open office can eliminate:
A typical floor at Intel’s headquarters building in Santa Clara, Calif., holds 500 workers and has 17 conference rooms. The rooms are often booked but empty, because the demand leads employees to reserve them if there is a chance they will be needed
In the Lean conversion to an open office, like any Lean experiment, there will be some people who don’t like it at first. You may find that taking down the walls exposes many of the basic instabilities in people, process, and purpose within the company. Take it slowly, unless you have leadership with a strong will and good presence on the gemba.

4 Comments

  1. Dan J

    July 17, 2009 - 10:56 am

    Unfortunately, this article is based on a number of faulty assumptions and mixes up a number of specific workspace issues in order to arrive at a conclusion. Studies have shown that open floor plans often increase job disatisfaction and lower productivity for many types of job positions. Secondly, the tone it takes towards people who may not like the concept of open office floor plans is condescending and dismissive, apparently assuming that people who don’t like open floor plans have no valid reasons for holding thinking that way. In my 25+ years in the corporate world, in which I’ve worked at a number of companies that have moved wholesale to open floor plans, in about half the cases they reverted to a more traditional approach within a few years. Executives like open floor plans because it lowers real estate costs, while creating the perception of increased collaboration and productivity.

  2. Jon Miller

    July 17, 2009 - 8:06 pm

    Hi Dan
    Thanks for your comments.
    It is unfortunate if I came across as condescending. That was not my intention.
    In my 16+ years observing people work in both open and closed office environments, my conclusion is that the attitude of people towards other people is the factor that is most important. In a respectful office work environment, morale and performance is high. If disrespectful, not high. As with any improvement effort, making a change to the layout or system without addressing the people side is a recipe to failure.
    That said, having an open office tends to connect people, make information and problems visible to people more quickly and improve the people issues as well.

  3. No Open Office

    March 3, 2012 - 9:13 am

    Jon,
    The empirical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that open floor plans lower productivity, increase turnover, and lead to employee dissatisfaction. They are an outdated relic of the internet bubble 1.0 (1998-2001) era and are an atrocious insult to knowledge workers. I have not met a single person who likes to be in full view for 8 hours a day.

  4. Jon

    March 3, 2012 - 10:51 am

    Hi N.O. Office,
    Can you point us to your empirical evidence? I am curious to learn more about it.
    For the sake of historical accuracy, open offices pre-dated internet bubble by about 100 years. Cubicles and private offices are a phenomena of the past 60 years or so. You may be correct that office spaces for knowledge workers made a shift from closed to open during the period you mentioned.
    Open offices have long been the norm for workplaces such as police stations, newsrooms, hospital nurse stations trading rooms. Many offices in Japan, China, Korea, England etc. have long been open. Possibly it is the loss of perceived privilege of the private office that causes the lost productivity and nothing inherent in the open space? Again, the empirical data underpinning your conclusion would b interesting.
    The fact that you have not met anyone, or that I have met people who like the open office, is not empirical evidence so we should not mix anecdotes with data.