The open office debate misses the point: attraction, retention, and colored T-shirts

The open office debate misses the point: attraction, retention, and colored T-shirts

Dr. Rebecca Bigler, director of The University of Texas at Austin’s Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab, has done a number of experiments with preschoolers and colored T-shirts.  In one, she took a classroom of 4 and 5 year olds and put half in red T shirts and the other half in blue T shirts .  The children wore these colored T shirts for three weeks but teachers were instructed not to notice or mention the colors in any way.  At the end of the three weeks, children were asked to evaluate the skill, abilities, characteristics, and intelligence of each group.  When asked “how many Blues are nice?” kids wearing Red were more likely to answer “Some” and kids wearing Blue would answer “All”.  When asked ”which color team is better to belong to?” kids almost universally answered with their own color.

The experiment may have been done with preschoolers but as adults, we still recognize the dress and environment of those we perceive to be like us and we credit that group with being smarter, more innovative, more trustworthy, and more capable of success.  If you search the web for tech founders you will find endless images of black t-shirts and jeans.  If you search for corporate leaders you will find suits and ties.   If you want to hire tech founders or corporate leaders, you need to create an environment that they will recognize as their own, fitting the symbolic colored shirt of “their” team.  Your potential hire waiting for the interview will decide by looking at your reception area whether or not your company wears the same color they do and based on that, whether they trust you, whether they believe your company will be successful, and whether this is the place they want to work.  Trust is a significant advantage.

There is a lot of discussion today about whether an open office or a traditional layout is better but in some ways, that misses the point.  The question is, who are you trying to attract and what is “their” environment.  There isn’t one prescriptive answer.  You can’t possibly decide on your office layout until you decide which color T-shirt, red or blue.