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The Peacock in Menlo Park: On Open Offices and Signaling Theory

Photo by Pille Kirsi:

An Open Discussion

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a new study that took a careful look at interactions in an open office. It found, contrary to popular belief, that moving to an open format made people less likely to talk face-to-face with their coworkers, and more likely to instead send distracting digital messages.

Not surprisingly, these changes led to lower productivity.

This post sparked an interesting discussion in the comment section and my personal inbox on the question of why so many organizations are so eager to embrace open concept workspaces.

A popular explanation was the cynical claim that open offices are a covert attempt to lower costs.

This might be right in some instances, but thrift can’t explain why Silicon Valley giants like Facebook or Apple, who literally have more cash than they know what to do with, embraced open formats in their new billion dollar headquarters.

The Peacock in Menlo Park

During these exchanges, I came to believe that when it comes to Silicon Valley (and other hot tech regions), the answer probably has a lot more to do with signaling theory.

The goal of an open office in this context is not to make employees more efficient, or to spark more brilliant cross-discipline breakthroughs, but instead to signal to new hires and investors that your organization is innovative.

Disruption and revolution are so valuable in the fiercely competitive tech sector that signaling these traits through a radical office layout might be worth the cost in reduced productivity. (This is similar, in signaling theory terms, to how a healthy peacock will expose itself to greater predation risk with a garish plumage to increase the chances it attracts a mate.)

Put simpler: If you were a Silicon Valley start-up, would you rather your 10x developers work from home to avoid open office distraction, or not be able to attract 10x developers in the first place?

A Deeper Alternative

When seen through the perspective of attention capital theory, however, this trade-off suddenly seems unnecessary. What if these organizations could instead signal their disruptive nature by reconfiguring their offices spaces to optimize the cognitive capacity of their workers?

What if, for example, they had soundproof pods where individuals and small teams could work with intense unbroken concentration, and these pods were then surrounded by common spaces that provided access to email terminals, coffee, and impromptu discussions?

Or, perhaps more conceptually, what if they could boast that their elite cognitive workers had no email addresses, but instead had access to Leo McGarry, chief of staff style coordinators who took care of the necessary but disruptive shallow tasks that infest so much of modern work — allowing them to focus deeply on producing extremely valuable output.

My sense is that there must be a way in the knowledge sector to signal to the world that you’re not doing business as usual, while actually enhancing your ability to do your business better than usual.


All of next week (starting Monday, July 23rd), I’ll be at Royal Holloway University, in Egham, UK (near London), at a computer science conference I helped organize. Please me know in the comments or at [email protected] if there are places I should see, food I should eat, or people I should meet while in this particular corner of the UK.

27 thoughts on “The Peacock in Menlo Park: On Open Offices and Signaling Theory”

    • As they get more normalized their popularity is beginning to decrease, which would make sense given the signaling theory hypothesis (as you noted, normalization decreases the signal’s value). An alternative explanation for their decreasing popularity, of course, is just that people are noticing they’re not pleasant to work in…

  1. I’m growing more and more convinced that increased productivity is not due to fancy nootropics or specially-worded affirmations as many personal development gurus claim, but about carefully engineering your environment. From the biomedical standpoint, environments are fascinating because they can actually alter genetic expression in the form of epigenetics. “Environment engineering” is a deeply under-utilized productivity hack.

  2. Activity Based Work design is aiming to capture the elements you describe and avoid the downside of open offices. The two are often confused and that, in combination with people concerned about signalling their status and not keen on change, makes it difficult to untangle the pros and cons of various ‘non office’ working options.

  3. I think you’re on to something here. I was a manager and while I knew instinctively that open offices weren’t effective, I would brag to new hires about our open office space, as if it was a sign that our company was innovative.

  4. Re. UK visit, Bletchley Park (the central site for British codebreakers during WW2; Alan Turing, cracking Enigma etc. – now a museum) is 1.5hrs away by car.

    Well worth a visit if you have the time.

  5. There is something to putting multiple junior programmers in a group office vs. giving them individual offices. Task switching is easier while young, and the inexperienced benefit from lots of discussing. Having more socializing is fun as well.

  6. Great article. I look forward to these little gems. I am lucky to be in a workplace where I can close my door and it is not perceived as rude or anti social. My co workers know that when my door is closed I am most likely focusing on getting something done. Now if only I could convince my employers that answering every phone call that comes through was incredibly disruptive and not that great for my output!

  7. The company I intern at, Viasat, configures it’s offices the way you describe, with focus pods and ‘neighborhoods’ to work together/socialize

  8. I love this point:

    “What if, for example, they had soundproof pods where individuals and small teams could work with intense unbroken concentration, and these pods were then surrounded by common spaces that provided access to email terminals, coffee, and impromptu discussions?”

    This is the same point you made in Deep Work when explaining the initial appeal of the open office philosophy and how it missed the mark. Originally, it was inspired by innovation and collaboration between experts in physics, however as you imply in the above quote, this advantage was not in unfettered open communication, but in a strategic, systematic flip between periods of isolated deep work, and then intermittent periods of impromptu communication which led to novel ideas, which were in turn developed further during periods of intense isolation and deep work.

    I think your idea here of engineering a work place to foster the kind of collaboration that genuinely produces novelty is worth exploring.

  9. Fan of the phrase “Leo McGarry, chief of staff style coordinators.” The West Wing’s a great show, I see the characters and its screenwriter Aaron Sorkin as role models as productive, passionate people.

  10. Royal Holloway is really near Windsor Great Park, which is definitely worth visiting. Free to enter, you can wander around (it’s huge – easiest way from Royal Holloway is probably going out through Englefield Green) and see great views of the castle (also worth a visit), deer (though with the drought we are having they might be hiding) and generally enjoy being in a big green lung of a park.

  11. It has gotten worse than this, at least in some companies.
    The amount of off-site work, either at a client or from home is giving rise to the hot desk phenomenon, where you don’t ‘own’ a desk but rather you just occupy a random available one.
    And still these companies resist anything that is not open plan, even though it is very clear that when their employees are at the office, it is because they have a pressing issue that they would want to iron out with their mates.
    Unfortunately I spend my days in an open plan environment and found that three things are helpful in my case:
    1. A good set of ear plugs
    2. An A4 sheet with ‘leave me alone’ written on it using a thick permanent marker
    3. A second laptop where only my tools are installed. No email, chatting software.

    It’s far from the ideal situation but I manage to dive and get 2 good slots a day.

  12. My husband is an architect who has designed office space for several of the silicon valley giants and a bunch of smaller SV style companies.

    One thing you that wasn’t mentioned is that open office space is largely designed for massive growth. When you have 100 people working in a space, but plans to hire 200 more before you’ll realistically have a new office, traditional offices don’t work super well — they feel empty and the space can’t be used for anything cool or productive.

    When you have open office space, you start off with 10 game rooms and 7 cafe style spaces, etc. etc. As you grow, they are taken away and converted into worker space until there is nothing more to take away.

    • You can still have a mix and transition between “recreational” to “high cubicals.”

      One “horrible” thing I’ve seen is the transition from “high cubical walls” with unnatural lighting” to “low cubical walls with natural lighting.” The lower walls do allow more natural light, but also require more shades to block sunlight at various times of the day and year. An standing desks are very strange with lower cubical walls as you can be distracted by people further away.

      Why can’t their be an ergonomics of focus and deep work?

  13. I’ve enjoyed your posts for quite some time, but major bonus points for the Leo McGarry reference. Thanks for your work, Cal.

  14. On this issue, everyone seems to assume that people are just trying their best to work hard and productively. In a lot of places, people don’t like their jobs and some will take any available opportunity to stop working. In a closed office, you can have long chats and long stretches on the internet and nobody will know about it.
    Management like open-plan in these circumstances – (misguided or not) they can see at a glance “who’s working and who’s not” – i put that in inverted commas because “working” is signalled by heads-down, concentrating on screen, and chatting comes under “dossing”, ie “not-working”. This attitude has certainly been in evidence in lots of the places i’ve worked – and surely it impacts on this issue.

  15. The British Museum near Trafalgar Square. Impressive catalog.

    Also, it seems that, overall, today’s technology seems to be fragmenting people’s attention, although in the past technology like books and writing tools allowed people to enter contemplative and deep thinking and working modes, as Nicholas Carr has written about. What are some modern tools that can enhance deep work and thought?

    • Fun fact about the museum reading room is that that’s where Karl Marx went to do his deep work. Das Kapital was probably written there.

  16. Odd. I suspected that the reason most businesses sought open offices was so management was one step closer to a panopticon without anyone suspecting it.

    I watched someone explain a bit more about google’s strategy for fostering innovation; their actual goal was to have engineers rubbing elbows as much as possible. To this end google included recreational activities at their facilities, so the engineers would continue to hang out after hours. The businesses that imitated google did not follow through with the remainder of google’s rationale.

  17. General note: I apologize to those of you who had to wait a long time for your comment to show up on this post. WordPress requires me to manually approve comments from users it does not recognize as commenting before. When I was away in the UK last week I was too busy to do this, so a lot of comments built up. Trying to catch up now…


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