If Your Building Looks Like A Factory, Your Corporate Culture Probably Does Too

So Facebook is a great company?  Then why does the HQ looks like the worst sort of factory from the Soviet Union with some little things added for show?

They may look impressive to Mr. Branson, and they are impressive, but as somebody who has worked in all sorts of different situations It looks potentially oppressive to me.  The open office might work for some things, but it’s a throwback to the days when there were just rows of desks and the only people with privacy  were the people on top. I mean, Gehry architecture included the building looks and acts as a perfect example of Taylorism in architecture.


And it doesn’t seem to have worked out very well for the people working there. Which isn’t really a surprise.  What all the executives don’t seem to understand is that the more or less open office plan is what existed for  the most part before the cubicle was invented.


Is there a perfect workspace?  I don’t know, and I’ve worked in just about every kind of space out there over the years.  I do know that I have been happiest when I had a place that I could regard more or less as mine.  To be creative, you need to have a space that you can feel safe, to be yourself.  An open office doesn’t do that. You are always under the prying eyes of your coworkers and others.  I ‘ve had half a days thinking on complex coding blown because somebody walked up behind me  and blown my entire train of thought.  In a more creative work environment, productivity isn’t measured by keystrokes or mouse button pushes.  Indeed, in creative work, the keystrokes happen after the real work is done.

That’s just me though.



The worst thing about an open office is that you can’t produce a culture of trust in a large office.  I know that in Japan, the open office is common, but the offices are smaller because, for the most part, the buildings are smaller.  There’s just no room for the large campuses that get built here in the US. Here’s some office spaces for Japanese companies.





Good Smile


Studio IG


Now all of these are small creative companies.  That work primarily on the computer. This is also Japan which is used to having to live in tight spaces.  Even so, there’s something to be said for not having to work in other people’s laps.  There’s some thinking in Japan that maybe some companies have too much comraderie and are too close.  The overworked salariman who works to seven or eight and then goes out to drink with coworkers until the last train is more than a cliché and there is a growing felling in Japan that the costs of this override the benefits.

There’s also the fact that most offices in Japan are more like rows of small desks rather than fully open. I suspect that most worker have a space that’s “there’s”  That might be fairly important for office work.

Here in the Us open offices were actually the norm for some time and were abandoned.  Presumably they were abandoned for the same reason that we are now rediscovering.  This article from the Washington Post tells the story.


Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive. Nothing was private. On the first day, I took my seat at the table assigned to our creative department, next to a nice woman who I suspect was an air horn in a former life.  All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system.  As an excessive water drinker, I feared my co-workers were tallying my frequent bathroom trips.  At day’s end, I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5:04 p.m. departure time. I beelined to the Beats store to purchase their best noise-cancelling headphones in an unmistakably visible neon blue.

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.”

The New Yorkerin a review of research on this nouveau workplace design, determined that the benefits in building camaraderie simply mask the negative effects on work performance. While employees feel like they’re part of a laid-back, innovative enterprise, the environment ultimately damages workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.  Furthermore, a sense of privacy boosts job performance, while the opposite can cause feelings of helplessness. In addition to the distractions, my colleagues and I have been more vulnerable to illness. Last flu season took down a succession of my co-workers like dominoes.

As the new space intended, I’ve formed interesting, unexpected bonds with my cohorts. But my personal performance at work has hit an all-time low. Each day, my associates and I are seated at a table staring at each other, having an ongoing 12-person conversation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  It’s like being in middle school with a bunch of adults. Those who have worked in private offices for decades have proven to be the most vociferous and rowdy. They haven’t had to consider how their loud habits affect others, so they shout ideas at each other across the table and rehash jokes of yore. As a result, I can only work effectively during times when no one else is around, or if I isolate myself in one of the small, constantly sought-after, glass-windowed meeting rooms around the perimeter.

If employers want to make the open-office model work, they have to take measures to improve work efficiency. For one, they should create more private areas — ones without fishbowl windows.  Also, they should implement rules on when interaction should be limited. For instance, when a colleague has on headphones, it’s a sign that you should come back another time or just send an e-mail.  And please, let’s eliminate the music that blankets our workspaces.  Metallica at 3 p.m. isn’t always compatible with meeting a 4 p.m. deadline.

On the other hand, companies could simply join another trend — allowing employees to work from home. That model has proven to boost productivity, with employees working more hours and taking fewer breaks. On top of that, there are fewer interruptions when employees work remotely. At home, my greatest distraction is the refrigerator.


I think it’s more than the way the office is set up that’s the problem.  I think that it’s the culture behind the open setup.  The open office send a pretty clear message that being able to monitor your every move is more important than actually bein able to get work done.  As much as they talk about socializing, in my experience, socializing is the last thing you want when you are actually trying to concentrate on work.  Frankly, I’ve worked in more or less open offices and had half of a day’s hard databases and programming destroyed by somebody sneaking up on me and blowing my concentration before I had a chance to actually type the code.

What it comes down to is culture.  Do you trust the people who work for you?  If you don’t then the open office plan will only drive that message home.   If you do, then you don’t really need to worry about the office plan. Richard Branson has some interesting things to say about culture here.

That statement, along with its realisation in physical form, is fitting with the vision of the company. It wouldn’t necessarily work for other organisations, but you’re left in no doubt as to the thinking behind the design. Many other businesses would do well to follow this example of creating workspaces to complement and enhance their brand’s ethos. The same goes for embedding a strong company culture.

What works for one company culture may be unsuitable for another. The key is working out what’s best for the team and creating something unique in order to be able to deliver even better performance.

Embedding a company culture that’s unique to your business is something I’ll enjoy raising with Sheryl Sandberg during next week’s live Virgin Disruptors debate. Much like Virgin, Facebook have been making headlines as a result of some rather different employee wellness policies.

Although many would argue that what Tony Hsiesh and Zappos are building in downtown Las Vegas is even more adventurous than free fertility treatment and unlimited annual leave. “We want Zappos to function more like a city and less like a top-down bureaucratic organization,” explains Tony. “Look at companies that existed 50 years ago in the Fortune 500  most don’t exist today. Companies tend to die and cities don’t.”

This is another genuinely unique take on the idea of company culture. There has never been a one-size-fits-all solution to making sure your staff are happy and healthy, but that doesn’t stop people trying to apply tired and ineffective motivational tactics or perks. Offering something that will set you apart from the competition can be your greatest asset, especially for new companies trying to break into competitive markets.

I saw a great example of this in action at our new Virgin Hotels Chicago this week. We have one hotel so far, but we’ve managed to embed a company culture from the start which has enabled us to attract a fantastic team to run it. The hotel industry doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to how staff are treated, so by innovating in this area we have been able to make the next Virgin Hotels a place where everyone would want to work.

Fun and healthy activities such as yoga and a company softball league have proven popular, but they only work alongside more meaningful offerings. You can’t open a business in the most culturally diverse city in America and not see that fact reflected in either your workforce or policies. Our partnership with Voxy – the English language learning platform – means that those staff who don’t have English as their first language can improve their abilities. All these things not only benefit the individuals in their private lives, they boost the company’s performance as well.

There’s no right or wrong way to go about creating a company culture, as long as you keep the staff that it’s designed for in mind every step of the way. What do you think helps to create fantastic company culture, and improve workplace wellbeing?


I’ve talked about office plans before.  Here’s the post.


Quite frankly, if you are in a business that involves a certain amount of creative work in the office, you want to crate an atmosphere where people feel that they are free to think.  I’ve been in a lot of plants now.  The typical factory floor is not a place where  a lot of thinking goes on.  It’s noisy, crowded and busy, with all sorts of stuff going on all the time.  Which is ok if nothing needs to change.  But when you are trying to create change, the kind of atmosphere  you have in the office is crucially important.  Ideas and innovation don’t really have a structure.  Creative thinking is a high risk activity.  It’s important that the people doing the thinking feel safe.  Otherwise you start to get responses from the lower, rather than the upper parts fo the hierachry of needs pyramid.  It’s better for people to have a palce of their own, rather than a seat at a table.

Even the most expensive office furniture is far cheaper than having people who have stopped thinking and far cheaper than losing your innovative edge. It’s far better to involve the employees in the office planning and see to their needs than it is to lose the innovation and productivity because  office planning from above  has wreaked havoc  on employees sense of trust and well being. It’s best to leave the factory and Taylorism, where they belong, in the 19th Century.


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