How Open Plan Offices Kill Diversity and Equality

In a previous column, I explained why open plan offices are now officially the dumbest management fad of all time. According to numerous peer-reviewed studies over the past three decades, open plan offices decrease productivity, make employees sick, and reduce morale. They neither save money nor increase “collaboration.”

Why are so many companies (i.e. so many top executives) embracing a strategy that’s so obviously unproductive and which employees almost universally dislike?

I originally assumed the continued growth of open plan offices (now around 70% of all offices in the U.S.) was a victory of biz-blab over science–the corporate equivalent of anti-vaccination and climate change denial. However, since open plan offices are so obviously stupid, I’ve concluded there must be something deeper at work here–a hidden agenda.

What could it be?

A clue to this hidden agenda may lie in the undeniable fact that while executives want their employees to work in these open plan environments, they almost always secure private offices for themselves.

Another clue may lie in the way that the growth in open plan offices matches declines in work-from-home policies, private offices, and cubicle offices, all three of which offer varying levels of privacy for regular employees which open plan offices totally lack.

The unifying theme is that executives want employees to remain physically visible and constantly on display while simultaneously retaining their own right to remain invisible. This desire must be something that’s highly valuable to top management for them to be willing to pay such a huge tax in productivity and morale.

I’m not talking about a conspiracy. Nobody got together, twirled their metaphorical mustaches, and with a “brou-ha-ha-ha” decided to stick it to their employees. No, what’s operating here is something more subconscious, like confirmation bias. It’s a cultural thing and therefore largely unexamined, like most hidden agendas.

So, then, what deeply hidden need does the open plan office serve?

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