How I learned to love the open office (even after years with a private one)

An employee works on his computer at the office of CloudFactory, a Canadian startup that based itself in Kathmandu, where it hires teams of Nepalese…
An employee works on his computer at the office of CloudFactory, a Canadian startup that based itself in Kathmandu, where it hires teams of Nepalese…
Image: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
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A recent study out of Harvard Business School received a lot of attention when it found that open office plans are not worthy of all they are hyped up to be and, in fact, decrease productivity and collaboration.

How everything comes around again.

As someone who has been through all iterations of this fad, I remain a fan of open office plans.

I started my career at IBM in 1978, and I grew up in an era in which your office said a lot about who you were. We measured the size of our spaces, counted the number of ceiling tiles, and compared the materials our desks were made out of (wood was better than metal). All of this was about status. All of it was kind of ridiculous.

But I didn’t know that at the time. These antiquated measures of success run deep. My dad was a successful businessman who left the house every morning in a suit and tie and took a briefcase to his office. All I wanted for my future was to dress up and go to a nice office. I enjoyed my office’s ocean view (and my own conference room) at Gateway. I didn’t see this work setup as being siloed from people or parts of the business.

I now know that private office space does not define success. And in many ways, it hinders it. Great companies are built on openness and transparency. Like it or not, the way an office is designed can help promote this culture—or it can prevent it.

After 40 years in the technology industry, I can tell you that to succeed, founders and CEOs must be visible and approachable. They should be open to engaging in dialogue, both inside and outside the company, and they should want to solicit feedback from employees, investors, and customers.

The truth is for much of my career I was not as aware of the true benefits of transparency or some of the truly simple ways to achieve it. When I started at eBay, I was shown my cubicle—and I was disappointed.

I was shocked when I learned that my cubicle was previously occupied by Pierre Omidyar—eBay’s founder—and that Meg Whitman, the CEO, also sat in a cube (the one next to mine). The entire executive staff was in the bullpen! How was I going to focus? How was anything going to get done?!

Once I got over myself and my cubicle confusion and got to work at eBay, I realized it was a much better of a way of working. The tension that can sometimes happen between colleagues or teams never had time to set in. There was no option to go into an office and close a door and stew over something. There were no secrets. Everyone knew everything. And instead of that being threatening or hard to control, it was amazing. We heard about problems fast, which enabled us to fix them faster. There was no waiting to schedule meetings three weeks out, you were able to speak to people when you saw them. We got so much more done.

Of course, eBay’s commitment to transparency and accountability went far beyond its seating arrangement. If we had a problem at the company, we always communicated it to our community. For example, we built a “trust site” and dashboard, giving full transparency into what was happening on the site in real time. I credit Meg Whitman’s appreciation of openness for what made eBay successful.

The seating arrangement helped fuel that culture. Great leaders don’t sequester themselves from their people or erect barriers between them. That’s why when Meg went to HP she did away with the executive dining room and sat with everybody.

Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced CEO of the now defunct Theranos, reportedly sat in an office behind bulletproof glass, something she once bragged about. Bulletproof glass may be see-through, but nothing about how this CEO was running the business was transparent. Issues always start small, but when you are not open about them, they escalate into something sinister and insurmountable. Transparency is the foundation for everything and making it the foundation for our physical offices is where it starts.

Maynard Webb is a 40-year veteran of the technology industry and the author of Dear Founder: Letters of Advice for Anyone Who Leads, Manages, or Wants to Start a Business.