Open Plan Offices Make a Comeback Because Lazy Bosses

In what’s got to be one of the dumbest moves in the history of business, many companies are demanding that their employees come back into the office, even when they have jobs that can be done remotely.

A recent article in Slate cited the example of a 500-person company that is demanding the employees come into to the office, even every though all the work can be done remotely, as evidenced by the fact that all but 2 percent of the employees had been working from home since March.

From a public health perspective, this is insane. Many employees will need to commute using public transportation, which forces people into confined spaces for extended periods of time and most offices are standard open plan environments that are notorious for spreading communicable diseases.

Why are companies doing something this incredibly stupid? According to Slate, “employers are embracing the same magical thinking so many individuals are–we’re ready for it to be over, so we’ll just act as if it is.” I think there’s more going on than this, though.

If you look back over the past two decades, high tech firms (with other industries, as always, following suit) have been enamoured of open plan offices. The ostensible reason behind this romance was that open plan offices were supposed to increase collaboration and therby make an organization more nimble and innovative.

However, whenever researchers have tried to measure the expected positive effect of open plan offices, they’ve found that, to the contrary, open plan offices actually reduce rather than increase collaboration. Open plan offices, in fact, reduce productivity so much that it utterly overwhelms any potential cost-savings resulting from a smaller floor plan.

The popularity of the open plan office, then, is exactly like climate change denial or anti-vaccination: the embrace of psuedoscience that runs contrary to actual scientific evidence. When people embrace psuedoscience, there’s always a hidden agenda. Sometimes that agenda is obvious (e.g. climate change denial = higher fossil fuel profits) or more of an psychological undertow (e.g. anti-vax = innumeracy + ignorance).

In the case of the open plan office collaboration/nimble/innovation pseudoscience, the psychological undertow is the boss’s need to monitor and control employee behavior. The advantage of open plan to management was always that it enabled “Management By Walk-around.”

Management by walkabout is perfect for lazy, insecure managers who don’t want to do the hard work of actually managing people. True management methodologies, such as Management By Objective, require forethought, writing, reading, and thinking. Any idiot can look over an employee’s shoulder.

So the real reason that some companies are demanding that employees return to the office environment is that the company is full of managers who are too lazy and stupid to manage their team remotely.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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