See Through The offices at Russell Investments are wide open.

Spencer Rascoff is the CEO of Zillow, a company valued at almost a billion dollars. He presides over 370 employees spread over four floors of a skyscraper in downtown Seattle, and in 2012 Fortune ranked him 22nd in their “40 under 40” rising star list. But Rascoff doesn’t rate a corner office. Or any office.

Rascoff has a regular desk, littered with photo collages and framed awards, in the open plain of Zillow’s headquarters. It’s the same size as everyone else’s, and only low, hip-high dividers guard
his privacy. 

Dilbert sits in a cubicle; so did the high-tech worker drones in the 1999 film Office Space. On the other end of the management ladder, Don Draper smarmed his way to the corner office, just like Gordon Gekko. But that hierarchical system of cubicles and private offices is going the way of the stenograph and the fax machine. 

Scott Wyatt, a managing partner of the Seattle-founded architecture firm NBBJ, is a cubicle killer. “It does nothing very well,” he says of the tiny padded cells. Cubicles don’t even deliver on their original raison d’etre, he says—instead of privacy, the lack of visual connection with coworkers just causes stress. The reason, claims Wyatt, is evolutionary: We humans first came from the open African savannah, and “being able to see your enemies coming gives tremendous comfort.” And a middle manager stalks his prey with more tenacity than a hungry lion. 

Plus, Wyatt adds, the cubicle stripped office workers of accountability. “When you’re all hidden in a cubicle, you misbehave. That’s when you get the loud laugher on the phone.” 

That’s why NBBJ’s spaces are all about transparency. They built see-through walls at Bellevue’s GLY Construction and sliding glass panels at McKinstry Innovation Center in SoDo. When the company designed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters, it opened up sight lines across the horseshoe-shaped building; employees often work from couches and reading nooks instead of desks. 

Russell Investments, the financial firm whose name adorns the downtown office tower that also holds Zillow, was completely remade by NBBJ before it took occupancy of the former WaMu Center in 2010. Now some 900 associates share 200,000 square feet of wide-open space. Even the CEO sits on the main floor—albeit next to an electric--blue pillar that reads “Office of CEO.”

“The open floor plan has broken down the barrier between management and workers,” says Ron Bundy, chief executive of Russell’s Indexes group. He says the lack of walls has encouraged what he calls “informal leaders,” since workers find it easier to muster the courage to pitch an idea or lead a team when they need only swivel a chair to be heard by coworkers. Russell “free deskers” don’t even have assigned chairs, but rather roam the floor every day for an open spot; more than 10 percent of Bundy’s group chose the transient model. 

At Microsoft, a whole team is devoted to the new wave of office space, led by Brian Collins, director of Global Workplace Strategies. He’s slowly converting Microsoft’s acres of offices—14 million square feet in Puget Sound alone—using what he calls its “kit of parts”: open desks, small storage cabinets on wheels, lockers, and an array of conference, group, and phone rooms so workers can
find privacy.

Mobility and minimal desk setups rely on today’s slim—and paperless—work tools: the laptop, cellphone, and tablet. Without the computer, we’d probably all still be cubicle monkeys or office overlords. Microsoft workers don’t even get paper mail anymore; for a pilot program currently under way, mailroom workers open envelopes and email the scanned contents to the intended recipient. The lowest-tech components in the open-office kit are the whiteboard walls, where scribbles and brainstorms are erased, not filed.

The kit parts don’t come cheap, but Collins calls it good business: “If we can improve productivity by half a percentage point for everybody, when you combine that with our annual revenue—we’re going to help the company make money,” he says. “It has a much bigger impact than saving from the bottom line.” He’s seen up to a 10-point increase in productivity compared to workers in Microsoft’s “legacy spaces,” i.e., private office and cubicle buildings.

So what’s to miss about the old climb to the corner office? Back at Zillow, nothing. Rascoff contrasts his company to his first professional gig at Goldman Sachs, where “the floor plan reinforced, validated, and communicated the command-and-control culture.” Zillow’s more egalitarian model means that everyone gets a share of the stunning Elliott Bay view, and there are no industrial cubicle walls to hide individual quirks. Everyone sees the Twilight poster in one corner (that sales team is apparently on Team Jacob), while across the floor a programmer’s twin computer monitors are guarded by a growing monument of empty Red Bull cans.

“It’s just more fun,” says Zillow senior project manager Jonas Boli. “And the team is gelling much more” since it moved out of individual offices. The boyish Rascoff thrives on his own access to the fun, filling about a quarter of his calendar with what he calls “MBWA time: Manager Be Walking Around.” He wanders a space that neither Dilbert nor Don Draper would recognize, and he considers that a good thing. If the corner office and cubicle are dead, no one here is throwing a funeral.


Published: January 2013

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