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

Photo by Pille Kirsi: https://www.pexels.com/photo/blue-and-green-peacock-1075821/

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.

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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 interesting@calnewport.com if there are places I should see, food I should eat, or people I should meet while in this particular corner of the UK.


Blog – Cal Newport