I recently read that Apple’s new office plan is receiving bad press. This surprises me, given that Apple usually has their handle on the latest in ideas. Yet, upon investigation, it’s clear that they appear to not be particularly innovative in their approach to work spaces. Here’s why.
The report I saw says that Apple is intending to use an open office plan. This is where all the tables are out in the open, or at best there are cubicles. The perceived benefits are open communication. And this is plausible when folks like Stan McChrystal in Team of Teams are arguing for ‘radical transparency’. The thought is that everyone will know what’s going on and it will streamline communication. Coupled with delegation, this should yield innovation, at the expense of some efficiency.
However, research hasn’t backed that up. Open space office plans can even drive folks away, as Apple’s hearing. When you want to engage with your colleagues and stay on top of what they’re doing, it’s good. However, the lack of privacy means folks can’t focus when they’re doing heavy mental work. While it sounds good in theory, it doesn’t work in practice.
When I was keynoting at the Learning@Work conference in Sydney back in 2015, a major topic was about flexible work spaces. The concept here is to have a mix of office types: some open plan, some private offices, some small conference rooms. The view is that you take the type of space you need when you need it. Nothing’s fixed, so you travel with your laptop from place to place, but you can have the type of environment you need. Time alone, time with colleagues, time collaborating. And this was being touted both on principled and practical grounds with positive outcomes.
(Note that in McChrystal’s view, you needed to break down silos. He would strategically insert a person from one area with others, and have representatives engaged around all activities. So even in the open space you’d want people mixed up, but most folks still tend to put groups together. Which undermines the principle.)
As Jay Cross let us know in his landmark Informal Learning, even the design of workspaces can facilitate innovation. Jay cited practices like having informal spaces to converse, and putting the mail room and coffee room together to facilitate casual conversation. Where you work matters as well as how, and open plan has upsides but also downsides that can be mitigated.
Innovation is about culture, practices, beliefs, and technology. Putting it all together in a practical approach takes time and knowledge to figure out where to start, and how to scale. As Sutton and Rao tell us, it’s a ground war, but the benefits are not just desirable, but increasingly necessary. Innovation is the key to transcending survival to thrival. Are you ready to (Qu)innovate?