BOLD: Defying the Traditional Workplace Culture

Open and collaborative workspaces are a hot and controversial topic these days. A recent article in Fast Company declared they don’t work, supported by many experts and the writer references others who say they were an “idea devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell”. Psychologists backed up the claims with well-researched data. Susan Cain’s thoughtful writing on the power of introverts emphatically outlines the need for private, quiet office space. If you wish to avoid such an open office environment, I have just supplied all the material you need to defeat such an initiative in your company. Print out the article, buy the book, hand it to your boss and say, “see, I told you it would never work and here is the proof, from experts, supported by real data.”

Then you should stop reading this article.

I am here to offer an alternative view based on 14 years of experience and overwhelmingly tangible results. In my high school science classes, I learned that a theorem lasts only until a counter-proof can be discovered. I offer that counter-proof.

Welcome to 12-year-old Menlo Innovations, a one-room schoolhouse for innovation filled with good kindergartners.  The office has no walls, offices, cubes or doors. There is no gifted C-suite (I sit out in the room with everyone else).  The space is open, flexible, regularly “re-designed” by the team at their whim and whimsy, and filled with the noise of work and human energy. It is a bit messy, at first glance seemingly chaotic, but on closer inspection and understanding, operating with a rigor and discipline unprecedented in our industry.

Our pursuit? The business value of joy.

The Menlo team works in pairs, two to a computer, collaborating all day long at the same task at the same time. The pairs are assigned and they are switched every five working days. As we are a custom software design and development firm that does contract work for our clients, the room is filled with programmers, designers, quality advocates, and project managers. They sit shoulder-to-shoulder having chosen throughout our history to push our lightweight five-foot aluminum work tables side-to-side and front-to-front so that even the pairs can be close to one another. Project team members do not have their own table, chair or computer to call their own. The team goes to the work; the work doesn’t come to them.

What is the difference between Menlo and other attempts in the realm of open office experimentation?  We didn’t build an open and collaborative workspace, we built an open and collaborative culture.

To build a culture you must align three basic elements of your business: the world’s outside perception of the company, your company’s inside reality, and the hearts of the company’s visionary leaders.

 We didn’t build an open and collaborative workspace, we built an open and collaborative culture.

Most companies operate in the “default culture” of:

–       Who did we hire?

–       What attitudes did they bring today?

–       What behaviors do we tolerate?

At Menlo, our recruiting and interviewing first selects for “fit for culture”. We test for good kindergarten skills. An Inc. magazine cover story on our interview process in July, 2011 gives you a peek inside our weird approach. In short, we simulate our work environment during an interview where we don’t ask any questions but rather run straightforward collaboration exercises where candidates pair with one another, twenty minutes at a time while my team watches.

To build a culture you must align three basic elements of your business: the world’s outside perception of the company, your company’s inside reality, and the hearts of the company’s visionary leaders.

Why would we be willing to “cut our productivity at least in half” to entertain such a crazy work practice? For one simple reason, we want to produce software joy in the world. Most software projects fail to ever see the light of day. Even if they ship, they fail to meet anything close to what people would consider a quality standard that anyone would consider acceptable, or even tolerable.  And even if they work, the majority of users hate the result. We didn’t want to work in an industry where we didn’t have a chance to work with pride, so we changed everything about the way we do our work.

What did we do and what are the reasons?

We eliminated the barriers to human communication by tearing down the walls and putting the team in charge of the space. Why? Because the energy of most teams are defeated in mind-numbing, spirit-draining meetings where they try to get everyone on the same page before retreating to their private offices and getting to the work they love. Then they quickly discover they are operating in total ambiguity and chaos.

We fit our interview to our culture. Why? Most interviews are two people lying to each over for a couple of hours and the newly hired person doesn’t actually discover the company’s culture until the first day on the job. At that point it is usually a race to demoralization long before productivity appears. During our interview, we do work and watch for good kindergarten skills. Our culture is clear from first contact.

We work two to a computer and we switch these assigned pairs every five working days. Why? This fundamentally weird aspect of our culture produces unprecedented quality and productivity. One of the main reasons is that we defeat the traditional “tower of knowledge” organization of our industry that causes bottlenecks everywhere.  Fred Brooks documented this bottleneck well in the Mythical Man Month which stated that if a project is late, you can’t add more people and move any faster. We have defeated Brooks’ Law with such regularity, it is but a faint reminder of a quaint time in our industry. The result? The last time our team recalls a software emergency was 2004! Our phone doesn’t ring with problems and we have no dedicated support team or hot line. We work forty-hour work weeks and never on weekends. There is no work from home component, and when team members go on vacation they are forbidden from checking email.

We do work and watch for good kindergarten skills. Our culture is clear from first contact.

It may surprise you that Menlo is filled with introverts. While I am no expert, I believe this is because introverts prefer fewer deeper relationships and prefer safety to fear in human relationships. They get that here.

We realize that the ideas we are espousing are controversial and many will vilify us for our approach and tell us over and over again why it just won’t work. We find that criticism humorous and energizing. For the inquisitive, we open our doors and welcome you to visit. Last year over 2,500 people in over 340 separate tour groups came from around the world to visit for anywhere from 2 hours to 5 days. What did they come to see?

A palpable, energizing culture that produces results, and joy.


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Image credit: artqu / 123RF Stock Photo

Rich is the CEO, co-founder and Chief Storyteller of Menlo Innovations, a company he founded with his partners in 2001. Rich recently authored a book called Joy, Inc. - How We Built a Workplace People Love for Portfolio at Penguin Random House.

  • Greg Marcus

    Rich – Great post – my favorite part is at the beginning, when you tell people to stop reading and use the first paragraph as proof of why an open environment can’t work. What is it with people who have nothing better to do than tell others that what they are doing successfully can’t work? You hit the nail on the head – it is about culture and values.

    I worked for a company that switched to an open environment right after I left. The open environment did nothing to change either the toxic culture or the changing market landscape. Moving the chairs around by itself does nothing to change the values. And at that company, senior management would try anything as long as they did not have to change themselves.

    I wish I lived in Michigan so I could come in and see your shop in action!


  • Tom Gimpel

    Thanks for the wonderful, well crafted response, Rich. Your comments (and Greg’s) are important. It’s not about the building a space in which to fit a team. It’s about building a team and letting it create a space that fits.

  • Tom Gimbel

    I love this. It sounds exactly like my company, LaSalle Network. We have an open floor plan – no walls or cubes, and everyone works in pods. Collaboration and communication is key. We move desks frequently, believing that it brings a new spark to the workplace, increases productivity and boosts morale. I share more about this on my blog:

    Like you, we also hire for culture fit. I’m a big believer that skills can be taught, personality cannot…we look for, as you put it, kindergarten skills. People who are genuinely nice people…people who would share their box of crayons during coloring time.

    To hire for culture fit, a candidate will spend a few hours, sometimes over the course of a few days at our office, interviewing with multiple members of our staff. If a few employee’s see red flags, it’s likely the candidate won’t fit with our culture, and they aren’t extended an offer.

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