A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
January 15th, 2014 by William

Operant Conditioning

In the late 1930s, Harvard psychologist Burrhus Frederick (B.F.) Skinner [1904-1990], a member of U.S. Army Intelligence, fine-tuned the art of human control into what he termed “operant conditioning.”

Skinner’s most famous invention, aimed at producing a “socialized child,” was the environmentally controlled “baby tender,” a crib-sized container into which he put scores of children including his own. Skinner built this “conditioning chamber” for his daughter as an improvement over the conventional crib. His goal was to provide a clean, quiet, safe, and comfortable place. He had the air filtered and heated and maintained a constant temperature. The infant had room to move freely and there was no danger of smothering or coking. While the device was not successful commercially, I believe it could clearly serve as a prototype of today’s modern office space cubicle and the environment he set out to replicate sounds a lot like the workplace.

The office partitions that we all lovingly refer to as cubicles were first introduced in the late 1960s by the office furniture company Herman Miller Inc. The idea behind the concept was to create a more efficient open-office model that Herman Miller called the “Action Office.” In reality cubicles became popular because they were a relatively cheap way to give workers an office without relying on heavy construction.

And now we have the “open office” layout fad. Many think the open office concept was developed as a response to the unhappiness of everyone with the “dilbertian” cubical environment however the “open office” concept actually got its start long before the cubicle. The cubicle was actually an attempt to make the open office “bullpens,” prominent in the 1940’s, into an environment that provided marginally more personal space for the employee. It gave the employee less of a feeling of being expendable. 

So in reality all we’re seeing is the pendulum swinging back to the open space office layouts. The death of the cubicle has begun in large part because of every management team wanting to emulate the success of companies like Google and Facebook. Thus it’s now spreading around the business world like wildfire. The underlying impetus for this fad–that’s been brainwashed into corporate management these days–is that the key to success is all about nurturing more collaboration and innovation and the way to that end is the open space office.

Seems that because Google and Facebook are successful, many corporations have been convinced that by emulating what they do, they too will be wildly successful. Of course in most cases this is without changing any other thing they’re doing.

So how exactly does the open office accomplish collaboration and innovation? Supposedly the open space floor plans, with broad open spaces where people sit side-by-side at tables with no partitions between them, will somehow make them want to talk business with each other and by interacting they will collaborate and innovate. Brings new meaning to ‘thinking outside the box,’ or in this case “outside the cubicle.” Actually Skinner had the right description for it: “operant conditioning.”

Additionally the open, zoo-like, space is supposed to increase the number of interruptions each worker will have which will then build collaboration and sharing, which in turn increases innovation. This I find is somewhat of a perverted logic.

Studies show that the average employee suffers 56 interruptions a day.Based on this statistic alone the open office environment should be the most productive environment in the history of business. However studies also show that the average employee spends upwards of 2 hours per day just recovering from distractions and trying to refocus on the task at hand. What’s telling is that 80% of those interruptions are considered trivial. This all equates to the fact that only 60% of work time is actually spent productively.

Somewhere in there innovation (and motivation) is supposed to be increased. These open spaces are also supposed to increase a sense of community amongst all the inmates. The idea being that the other ingredients to a successful organization like, trust, empowerment, respect, empathy, etc. don’t much matter to success. So what’s the verdict? Is this new fad the panacea that companies have been looking for to miraculously get everyone to “get along” and be “team players?”

In her 2013 Forbes article, “New Research: Workers Hate Their Cubicles,” Susan Adams gives us some insight. She tells us, “Cubicle-dwellers will not be surprised by new research from the University of Sydney, Australia: [R]oughly half of those who sit in open-plan offices with no partitions, say they find a “lack of sound privacy” to be a source of frustration. The bottom line of the new study: It looked at worker frustration in 15 categories from noise level to space to light and air quality. Workers in their own offices came out ahead in every category.”

Further Adams tells us: “Open plan office layouts have been touted as a way to boost workplace satisfaction and team effectiveness in recent years. We found people in open plan offices were less satisfied with their workplace environment than those in private offices.” So how exactly does “less satisfaction” equate to increased collaboration and more innovation? This type work environment seems quite de-motivating in my mind.

Adams also tells us, “…it turns out that the theory [of open-space layouts] was not based on empirical evidence. More than two years ago, the Harvard Business Review ran a piece that described a study of employees at Scandinavian Airlines. The company had redesigned its headquarters back in 1987 to include a central thoroughfare that linked various amenities like a café, shopping, exercise areas and a medical center. There were also several “multi-rooms” with comfy furniture, coffeemakers, photocopiers and office supplies. Management encouraged employees to hold “impromptu meetings” and “creative encounters.” Instead only 9% of employee exchanges happened along the thoroughfare and the café and just 27% in all the other public spaces combined. Two thirds of employee exchanges still took place in private offices, most likely because people can hear each other better and protect themselves from being heard by unwanted ears.”

Adams gives us the bottom line: “Open office planners thought that workers would help one another with challenging tasks. But it turns out that while those who need help do better, those who offer help fare worse. It’s not surprising when you think about it. If I know how to do a task, I’m better off getting on to the next thing, rather than losing time trying to teach a less-able coworker.”

In her 2014 New Yorker article, “The Open-Office Trap,” Maria Konnikova provides more proof: “In June, 1997, a large oil and gas company in western Canada asked a group of psychologists at the University of Calgary to monitor workers as they transitioned from a traditional office arrangement to an open one. The psychologists [found that] the employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.”

So I talked to some of my personal friends that work in these “open space” arrangements and I asked how it’s working out. Their answer: “We have our noise-cancelling headphones on pretty much all the time–because that’s what the environment demands of us. We like talking to each other, but we have been put into an environment that tries to manufacture that talking, and now we do the opposite.” Add to that the fact that the workplace becomes a battleground for games like rubber-band wars and it’s easy to see how without management intervention these environments quickly become counterproductive.

In their 2011 Harvard Business Review article, “Who Moved My Cube?” Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks put the whole subject in perspective: “The most effective spaces bring people together and remove barriers while also providing sufficient privacy that people don’t fear being overheard or interrupted. In addition, they reinforce permission to convene and speak freely.”

Isn’t that the function of the organization’s culture–to set the right environment for collaboration? Seems to me this latest push for the open floor plan is a desperate attempt by management who may have lost control of properly motivating their employees and thus really aren’t “leading.” They then look for a fad solution that will, in effect, save their bacon.

Another management fad floating around the modern workplace is the pressure for all employees to “multi-task.” Right behind “proactive” it’s the second most annoying buzzword in the management lexicon. If we were to assume for a minute that people in fact can concentrate on more than one thing at a time, it appears that the open office puts a torpedo in the “multitasking” illusion also. As Konnikova tells us:“Unfortunately, it seems that the more frantically you [attempt to] multi-task the worse you become at blocking out distractions. And distractions are what the open office is all about. Moreover, according to the Stanford University cognitive neuroscientist Anthony Wagner, heavy multi-taskers are not only ‘more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli’ but also worse at switching between unrelated tasks. In other words, if habitual multi-taskers are interrupted by a colleague, it takes them longer to settle back into what they were doing.” Recall the above fact that the average worker spends upwards of 2 hours per day just recovering from interruptions.

This new fad seems to ignore that the true key to productivity, or collaboration, or innovation, or whatever buzzwords you want, is as simple as fostering coordination (“I’m handing this over to you”), cooperation (“I’m helping you out”) and communication (“I’m keeping you up to date”). For most organizations if those key elements of productivity are missing, changing the floor layout isn’t going to miraculously change anything. It’s the same folly that we see with organizational charts–when in trouble the first thing management will do is “re-organize.”

I’ve said this before: “the key to teamwork, effectiveness and efficiency is as simple as each employee finishing his/her job on time so that the next person can do theirs.”

While I think the days of the individual office for everyone are long gone I do believe that employees would be much more productive if provided some modicum of privacy. A happy medium between the individual office and the open-range is logically the cubicle.

Moving everyone from cubicles to an open space is a case of management taking the buzz-phrase “think outside the box” literally and thus believing that if they take the employee “out of the box” it will miraculously make them think, perform and innovate differently. As I’ve said before in past posts, management should first inspire their employees to “think inside the box,” i.e., the cubicle.

It seems that the verdict is in: the open space office is counterproductive−certainly to the stated goals. I’m sure if you ask anyone working in an open-office environment they’d say they would prefer their old cubicle any day. With that said: let the “fight for the last cubicle” begin.


One Response to “Operant Conditioning”
  1. Jimmy Tsunoda says

    Very informative article.Much thanks again. Really Cool.

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