“Nobody likes working in a cube.” Considering how many different kinds of office spaces I’ve had the misfortune to have to inhabit, if you don’t like your cube, trust me there are worse alternatives. Large cubes, small cubes, monitor on top of old drafting tables, individual desks, monitor on secretary’s hutch. If there’s a good, bad and ugly to offices, I’ve been there.
Here’s some offices that I’ve worked in. This is my desk at Jefferson Lab. I had the same kind of Sears special desk at home for years. Still it is a private office even if it is in a trailer. I got a lot of work done here.
Here’s the office I had at my last job.
The history of the “cube” is interesting because of how far it has gone from the original design intent. Strangely enough, the cube evolved from the fact that many people noticed that the open offices weren’t working out very well for the people working in them. The cube was intended to provide a small space that separated you from the hustle and bustle that went on around them. In fact the first cubicals that I saw were actually file cabinets put together between the desks.
Perhaps the problem isn’t the office space, but the institutions that created the space. It’s fairly obvious nowadays that there is something really wrong in the American corporate culture.
For the next 100 years, the corporation served its purpose well. From Henry Ford to Harold Geneen, the great corporate managers of the 20th century fed the rise of a vast global middle class, providing both the financial means and the goods and services to bring luxury to the masses.
In recent years, however, most of the greatest management stories have been not triumphs of the corporation, but triumphs over the corporation. General Electric’s Jack Welch may have been the last of the great corporate builders. But even Mr. Welch was famous for waging war on bureaucracy. Other management icons of recent decades earned their reputations by attacking entrenched corporate cultures, bypassing corporate hierarchies, undermining corporate structures, and otherwise using the tactics of revolution in a desperate effort to make the elephants dance. The best corporate managers have become, in a sense, enemies of the corporation.
The reasons for this are clear enough. Corporations are bureaucracies and managers are bureaucrats. Their fundamental tendency is toward self-perpetuation. They are, almost by definition, resistant to change. They were designed and tasked, not with reinforcing market forces, but with supplanting and even resisting the market.
Yet in today’s world, gale-like market forces—rapid globalization, accelerating innovation, relentless competition—have intensified what economist Joseph Schumpeter called the forces of “creative destruction.” Decades-old institutions like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns now can disappear overnight, while new ones like Google and Twitter can spring up from nowhere. A popular video circulating the Internet captures the geometric nature of these trends, noting that it took radio 38 years and television 13 years to reach audiences of 50 million people, while it took the Internet only four years, the iPod three years and Facebook two years to do the same. It’s no surprise that fewer than 100 of the companies in the S&P 500 stock index were around when that index started in 1957.
Even the best-managed companies aren’t protected from this destructive clash between whirlwind change and corporate inertia. When I asked members of The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council, a group of chief executives who meet each year to deliberate on issues of public interest, to name the most influential business book they had read, many cited Clayton Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” That book documents how market-leading companies have missed game-changing transformations in industry after industry—computers (mainframes to PCs), telephony (landline to mobile), photography (film to digital), stock markets (floor to online)—not because of “bad” management, but because they followed the dictates of “good” management. They listened closely to their customers. They carefully studied market trends. They allocated capital to the innovations that promised the largest returns. And in the process, they missed disruptive innovations that opened up new customers and markets for lower-margin, blockbuster products.
The weakness of managed corporations in dealing with accelerating change is only half the double-flanked attack on traditional notions of corporate management. The other half comes from the erosion of the fundamental justification for corporations in the first place.
British economist Ronald Coase laid out the basic logic of the managed corporation in his 1937 work, “The Nature of the Firm.” He argued corporations were necessary because of what he called “transaction costs.” It was simply too complicated and too costly to search for and find the right worker at the right moment for any given task, or to search for supplies, or to renegotiate prices, police performance and protect trade secrets in an open marketplace. The corporation might not be as good at allocating labor and capital as the marketplace; it made up for those weaknesses by reducing transaction costs.
Mr. Coase received his Nobel Prize in 1991—the very dawn of the Internet age. Since then, the ability of human beings on different continents and with vastly different skills and interests to work together and coordinate complex tasks has taken quantum leaps. Complicated enterprises, like maintaining Wikipedia or building a Linux operating system, now can be accomplished with little or no corporate management structure at all.
That’s led some utopians, like Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, authors of the book “Wikinomics,” to predict the rise of “mass collaboration” as the new form of economic organization. They believe corporate hierarchies will disappear, as individuals are empowered to work together in creating “a new era, perhaps even a golden one, on par with the Italian renaissance or the rise of Athenian democracy.”
That’s heady stuff, and almost certainly exaggerated. Even the most starry-eyed techno-enthusiasts have a hard time imagining, say, a Boeing 787 built by “mass collaboration.” Still, the trends here are big and undeniable. Change is rapidly accelerating. Transaction costs are rapidly diminishing. And as a result, everything we learned in the last century about managing large corporations is in need of a serious rethink. We have both a need and an opportunity to devise a new form of economic organization, and a new science of management, that can deal with the breakneck realities of 21st century change.
The strategy consultant Gary Hamel is a leading advocate for rethinking management. He’s building a new, online management “laboratory” where leading management practitioners and thinkers can work together—a form of mass collaboration—on innovative ideas for handling modern management challenges.
What will the replacement for the corporation look like? Even Mr. Hamel doesn’t have an answer for that one. “The thing that limits us,” he admits, “is that we are extraordinarily familiar with the old model, but the new model, we haven’t even seen yet.”
This much, though, is clear: The new model will have to be more like the marketplace, and less like corporations of the past. It will need to be flexible, agile, able to quickly adjust to market developments, and ruthless in reallocating resources to new opportunities.
Resource allocation will be one of the biggest challenges. The beauty of markets is that, over time, they tend to ensure that both people and money end up employed in the highest-value enterprises. In corporations, decisions about allocating resources are made by people with a vested interest in the status quo. “The single biggest reason companies fail,” says Mr. Hamel, “is that they overinvest in what is, as opposed to what might be.”
This is the core of the innovator’s dilemma. The big companies Mr. Christensen studied failed, not necessarily because they didn’t see the coming innovations, but because they failed to adequately invest in those innovations. To avoid this problem, the people who control large pools of capital need to act more like venture capitalists, and less like corporate finance departments. They need to make lots of bets, not just a few big ones, and they need to be willing to cut their losses.
The resource allocation problem is one Google has tried to address with its “20%” policy. All engineers are allowed to spend 20% of their time working on Google-related projects other than those assigned to them. The company says this system has helped it develop innovative products, such as Google News. Because engineers don’t have to compete for funds, the Google approach doesn’t have the discipline of a true marketplace, and it hasn’t yet proven itself as a way to generate incremental profits. But it does allow new ideas to get some attention.
In addition to resource allocation, there’s the even bigger challenge of creating structures that motivate and inspire workers. There’s plenty of evidence that most workers in today’s complex organizations are simply not engaged in their work. Many are like Jim Halpert from “The Office,” who in season one of the popular TV show declared: “This is just a job.…If this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.”
The new model will have to instill in workers the kind of drive and creativity and innovative spirit more commonly found among entrepreneurs. It will have to push power and decision-making down the organization as much as possible, rather than leave it concentrated at the top. Traditional bureaucratic structures will have to be replaced with something more like ad-hoc teams of peers, who come together to tackle individual projects, and then disband. SAS Institute Inc., the privately held software company in North Carolina that invests heavily in both research and development and in generous employee benefits, ranging from free on-site health care and elder care support to massages, is often cited as one company that could be paving the way. The company has nurtured a reputation as both a source of innovative products and a great place to work.
Perhaps the problem isn’t the office space, but instead the way the company is run? The companies are putting people in boxes well, because in their minds they put people in boxes. I suppose it’s an easy way to manage, but the problem with that is that people are round and boxes are square. Which means that managements and HR’s attempts to make things work sort of end up like this.
One would think that the oppressive ambiance of the Ministry Of Information wouldn’t be used as a template for business operations. Unfortunately when the office environment is so clichéd that it appears in animated movies and everybody understands the jokes, things are not looking good for our workplaces.
I would think that with all the self analysis American companies perform on themselves, all the reports in journals like HBR would help them to understand the issues in the workplaces. Yet the typical workplace has gotten worse over the years, not better. All the work in “scientific management” that’s gone on and this is the end result. the little documentary following sort of says it all.
It seems like the office is stuck going from one extreme to the other, over and over.
In part because the cubicle has become such a despised symbol of a bad office job, the gray, felt-covered walls are starting to come down. More open office plans with fewer or no partitions (or even long picnic tables serving as desks) are now all the rage. The irony is that the open office was exactly what the creator of the cubicle was trying to save us all from.
That inventor was Robert Propst, a brilliant designer working in the 1960s for the office-furniture firm Herman Miller. He called the U.S. office “a wasteland” in 1960. “It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”
The offices Propst so loathed were largely open, of the type we now see on “Mad Men”: row after orthogonal row of serried desks, where accountants or typists clacked away from 9 to 5, often surrounded by a corridor of closed-door offices for managers and executives.
The 1960s witnessed the rise of an even more open plan: a new concept imported from Germany called the Bürolandschaft, or office landscape. It called for cultivated chaos: desks grouped together in pods across a sprawling floor plan, with sightlines blocked by tall ferns and soundscreens and not a private office in sight. This new, swirling design—meant to flatten hierarchies and ease communication—became a big hit with architects, planners and designers. Soon it was springing up all over Europe—and, after the first U.S. office landscape was installed in the headquarters of DuPont in 1967, across the U.S. as well.
The problem? People hated it. Open-office plans—then as now—mean noise, both visual and aural. People used to private offices couldn’t concentrate because of all the chatter and typing. For all the supposed egalitarianism of the office landscape, managers usually allotted themselves more space than junior staff, and the creative use of screens and extra plants often let them carve out ad hoc private offices for themselves. By the 1970s, European workers’ councils had rejected open-office plans, insisting that employees across the continent be granted private offices.
In the U.S., however, the open-plan remained unchallenged—until Propst. He concluded that office workers needed autonomy and independence—and therefore offered a flexible, three-walled design that could be reshaped to any given need. Propst also felt that workers needed to stand as often as they sat, so he created storage space to encourage workers to get up. And he wanted offices to encourage “meaningful traffic” among workers. It was a startlingly utopian vision, and it forecast much of today’s progressive office-design thinking.
The trend seems to be going back to an open office. The thing is that there’s no real research to back up the change. In many ways these new open offices are buying worlds, all the noise and bustle, along with the closing in and tight paces of the cubes. and as some friends who have worked in them have pointed out, no sense of privacy or personal space. Anyway, here’s some office videos.
Looking at these, I wonder if anybody actually does any WORK in them. Which may be the problem.
The problem with all these open offices is that they are in essence, just one big conference room that everybody sits at. That’s great if you are trying to socialize, but in many ways, creative work is antisocial. True creativity is a individual effort, with the collaboration only happening when the ideas you come up with need to be ironed out.
This office is functional and not too tight. This office is set up as a working arrangement for people who actually expect to do work and it shows.
Here’s another small office space. some internal barriers might help, but it’s nice and sunny.
Danny has been doing office tours of a bunch of Japanese creative companies. The Japanese seem to like very tight offices. I think that it comes from their cultural tightness and the general tendency for small spaces in Japan. For whatever reason the Japanese tend to cram things into tight spaces even when it’s not really necessary.
I think the problem isn’t as they say, “not in the stars, but in ourselves.”
The problem isn’t the workspace itself, but how the work is managed. As I have said, I’ve worked in some of the most crazy spaces imaginable. The stress though, didn’t come from the workspace, but how the work flowed and was managed. Or mismanaged as the case may be. If the work is fulfilling and you get a feeling of accomplishment from it, then your stress goes way down and you are more productive. If you are constantly micromanaged, see a lack of direction and keep getting tasks dumped with no rhyme or reason and never given the time to actually finish what you start, then stress is inevitable.
The trends toward Taylorism and scientific management in the 20th Century created workplaces where that sort of thing became the norm rather than the exception. Instead of productive and happy workplaces, that made them hellish places to work up and down.
Worse, the workplace environment that has evolved creates companies that are fragile rather than robust. By pursuing efficiencies over flexibility, the company of today is vulnerable to disruption from technical and governmental sources. Also they no longer foster an environment where innovation and creativity can happen. Indeed, by making the communication channels so complicated and buried by procedure the American company stifles the innovation it needs to survive in the current changing word. Unless this changes, the future of the American company is not bright and shiny, not at all. NOr is it bright for the American employee.