Episode 13: What Do Open Office Floor Plans, Unlimited PTO, and Scared Straight Have in Common?

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

Episode 13: What Do Open Office Floor Plans, Unlimited PTO, and Scared Straight Have in Common?

Misinformation, bad data, and the danger of anecdotes can lead to serious problems in your business. David goes over the risks of misinterpreted information and not very well-thought-out ideas on your employees and bottom line.

Show Notes

Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.

The open office floor plan: rethinking an awful idea

Rethinking Office Design: Why Open Office Spaces Kill Productivity

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Show Transcript


What do open office floor plans, unlimited time off, and Scared Straight all have in common? Misinformation, bad data, and the danger of anecdotes in your business today on The Buck Stops Here Podcast.



Hi, I’m your host, David Maples, and welcome to another episode of The Buck Stops Here Podcast. This is season one, episode 13, and the subtitle for this episode is “Misinformation, Bad Data, and the Danger of Anecdotes.” So, there’s a famous quote, I think I used it even in an earlier podcast by Mark Twain, and it goes something like this; “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”



And that’s what we want to address today in your business on The Buck Stops Here. So, we all have had stories told from us about these things work in our business, okay? And I’ve got another episode coming up later called “Binary is Basic,” which is going to talk a little bit about our preconceived notions. But today I’m going to take the kind of advice, that kind of thing. So, the question is, where do we get our information online?



What do we do? Okay? So, one of the famous stories is that when your mailman starts giving you advice on what stocks to buy, it’s been time to sell for months. The question is, where do you go get information? So, let me tell you a story. There’s a kid; let’s just call him John. Or David, that’s my name, that’s okay.



And David is an okay kid, but he kind of fell in with a bad crowd. Got involved with some kids who were kind of doing some drugs and some other stuff. And, you know, he’s 13 or 14 years old, and so he gets picked up by the cops, and he gets thrown in the clink. So, he’s in juvie for a couple of days, and there’s a new program in town called Scared Straight. And basically, the premise of this program is they take people like David, and they put him in with hardened criminals for a weekend, kind of, at the jail cell. They kind of spend the night there, et cetera. In some cases, they spend the night. Some cases, it’s just the day program.



But they go there, and they get these hardened criminals who are doing really serious time for crimes, et cetera. And the idea is that if I scare David, he’ll go straight. He won’t commit crimes anymore. All right? And that sounds on the surface like a really, really good idea. And in fact, the original people who came out with this kind of thing back in 1979 or somewhere where people did it, they said, you know, “People like David, if they go into this program, at 90 days after this program, they’ve not committed a new crime.”



So, you know for sure that it works. And in some cases, this anecdotal good idea is actually followed up with a whole bunch of pseudoscience. And in case those of you guys listening to me, pseudoscience is one of the great evils of the world. It’s where things clothed in kind of the trappings of actual science are not. It drives real scientists crazy.



And the fact of the matter is the data doesn’t lie. You know? There’s three types of lies; lies, damned lies, and statistics. Well, the fact is the data didn’t lie at all. It is the interpretation of the data that’s the problem. So, what am I bringing up here? It turns out that Scared Straight programs don’t work.



And I think you guys, kind of, heard that in the intro to the episode that some of this stuff is going to happen. It’s one of those things we have a lot of these kind of things we take around with us all the time. These stories we’ve heard, and you know them to be true. It could have come from a quote-unquote credible source. But the fact of the matter is there’s a lot of stuff that we believe and we use in our business that just ain’t so.



And it’s kind of one of the problems. These kind of things sound really, really good. And so the question is, where does this misinformation come from? And the answer is a whole bunch of sources. And we’ll go into that a little bit later in this episode.



But right now I want to take apart two of the things that you may have been contemplating in your business that I’m going to tell you that probably should run from, or at least as we say on The Buck Stops Here, your mileage might vary. I think you need to look at these things with a critical eye and say, what are we really trying to achieve here in our business? Are we trying to engage our employees? Are we doing this because there’s money?



Because some of this stuff has been sold, and some of this deals with what you’re dealing with on a daily basis. You know, a lot of the world has gone virtual now in their office spaces. The company I work for, in most cases, has gone virtual, and there are big challenges on that. I had one of my most important employees to my company who really- the virtual office space didn’t work for them. And that person is no longer with my organization and I kind of hate that, right?



Because ultimately, at the end of the day, I can’t change the fact that the world moved. But you have to acknowledge that there are real challenges in this. And if you’ve decided to go all virtual or all in person or whatever it is, there are pros and cons to any activity you take on this. And you, as a business owner, should at least be making this based on the best data you can have. Now, the problem with virtual working is all the data is still really new.



So, two of the things I’m going to take apart right now, which you kind of already know based on how I’ve keyed this up- It’s just like Scared Straight, these things were based on some data that were released in the marketplace, and it sounded really good. So, in the 1990s and even to today, open office floor plans became all the rage. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any major organization that hasn’t at least tried them at this point in time.



And it’s kind of funny how these things come out. A lot of times in America, in particular, these things trickle down from the big cities. A lot of these ideas don’t happen out in the country, as we say. I’m from middle Georgia originally.



My town was fairly small, right? I mean, my uncle was just down the road from us, and he lives in a town I think to this day has a population of 105 people. That’s not where these ideas are coming from. These ideas usually happen in big cities, places like Chicago, New York, L.A., Seattle.



And a lot of times, they’re pushed by different people with different agendas for whatever they do. And so this idea was, “You know what the best thing is? Is that if we can communicate more in the office place- let’s tear down the cubicles, let’s tear down the walls, let’s tear down the individual offices.” And this was sold to a lot of business owners across America.



And they said, hey, there’s a lot of things we could do this way. And there are a lot of architects who love this idea. Now, by the way, the new buildings- it actually turned out open office floor plans, in some cases, were less expensive, right? So, there’s a way to sell it. And then there are a whole bunch of architects who made a ton of money remodeling existing buildings.



I mean, imagine in New York City. Those skyscrapers are remodeled all the time. You’re not building – I mean, they’re still building like crazy – but they’re not building, you know, 1,000 new skyscrapers a year. There’s already 1,000 of them there. So, you go in, and you remodel these, et cetera. You always want to kind of follow the money when these things happen.



But a lot of times, you have some well-meaning, smart people who produce a paper or whatever it is. And sometimes it’s just like if you’re not well versed in statistics, you have to understand that, you’ve probably heard this before, that correlation does not equal causation, right? And at the end of the day, you want to find out what’s causing these activities. So, somebody sits down, and he says, “Hey, you know what? We want our people to communicate more.



Serendipity is a real thing. Something just coming up to you in your business. This great idea happened because two of my people – I’ll use two of my guys, Devin and Caesar – just happened to run into each other across a hallway, and they came up with the next new thing for us at our company. Sounds awesome. Sounds amazing, right?



We want to increase serendipity. We want to increase communication. And it turns out that if you do one of these open office floor plans, people could chat a little bit more, there’d be more communication, and people would like these big- and by the way, open office floor plans are visually appealing. If you go into a place that’s just a whole bunch of closed offices and you’re a young person entering the workforce, and then you go see an open office place, you’re like, “Man, I want to work in that place with the open office.” Turns out they’re terrible, terrible, terrible ideas.



There’s only a couple of reasons that they’re really pro. They do cost less than a new build for a building. That’s a little bit cheaper, right? But even the first major premise that they increase communication among people, well, they do increase communication, but it turns out, of your entire workforce, and depending on the study you read, only between 5 and 15% of the people actually prefer them. Some managers like them because they can micromanage.



They can now walk around the bullpen and see who’s working, who’s not, who’s on their phone, who’s playing video games, who’s looking at stuff on the computer they shouldn’t be doing. So, it increases this micromanagement factor. And people like to have when they’re working, they like to have, most people, like to have dedicated workspace because one of the worst things that can happen at the end of your day is you don’t get your work done. And so, in this particular case, what’s happened is it turns out it increases kind of the misery index for people. There’s a number of, like, how many people are miserable at your organization, and it’s a huge number.



It also, counter to what people think, according to a Harvard Business Review study, decreases open lines of communication among your existing working file by up to 70%. So, think about that. You’ve decided to do something massive for your organization. You’re going to go to this open office floor plan.



It’s going to make everything better, and you literally spend a ton of money on something that is decreasing the productivity of your people beyond the increased benefits of keeping people from shopping on an online store during the work time, right? And it’s made your people less happy, and it also distracts them from getting their work done. So, it actually decreases productivity. But yet this has been, I mean, literally billions, and I would dare say maybe even tens of billions or maybe $100 billion, were spent on remodels to make corporate America embrace the open office plan. You know, it was all based on bullshit.



And as you guys know on The Buck Stops Here, we don’t like bullshit. We think it’s terrible for what you do in your business, in your organization. It doesn’t help you make good decisions. And the whole point of this podcast is to equip all of you with the tools you need to make better decisions. But all of you out there listening to me right now need to realize is that you want a plan of action.



You want things that’ll work. And here’s the thing, always look at what that person is selling you. The person who tells you this is a new thing. By the way, anybody who says, and this will be brought up in my “Binary is Basic” episode, anybody who says this is the answer, remember going back to our first episode, it’s a silver bullet.



There are no silver bullets in business. There are good ideas, there are terrible ideas, and there are amazing ideas. But most of them kind of fall in the middle. They just do. So, open office floor plan.



If you can hear where I’m at on it, it’s a terrible idea. And that’s actually, by the way, that’s not necessarily something that’s going to really floor you. You may have heard people saying it’s a mixed bag. But in 2005, if I had said this, you would think I was saying something that was contrary to common wisdom. It’s obvious that the open floor plan- the open office is the future. It’s not.



It’s a terrible way to make your people miserable. And most of us, even at the worst business, probably don’t strike out every morning saying, “How can I make my employees miserable today?” By the way, there’s a few of you out there. Please lose this podcast. Don’t listen to me anymore.



I don’t want to ever talk to you, and I don’t think you should be in the workforce. But that’s because I’m opinionated. So, the last one I was going to talk about today is unlimited paid time off. Okay, cool. People are getting enough paid time off. Let’s create unlimited paid time off. Okay, sounds awesome. How can I recruit people? Well, I’m going to create this thing called unlimited paid time off. They can take as much time off as they want.



Wow, it sounds like it’s a good recruiting tool. Especially, again, young people entering in the workforce hear that. Now you, at a company, need to be very honest with yourself about this. And I’m going to go ahead and tell you this. If you hear this from me, do not lie to anyone about it later.



Those people with unlimited paid time off take less time off for themselves than they do when you have a dedicated amount of time off. And, in some cases, it’s 50% less time, and they also work more on their vacation time. So, ask yourself as an organization, when you put this in place, are you doing it because you got together with your bean counters, and you said, “Hey, let’s screw everybody over. Let’s do this great thing called unlimited paid time off because it actually costs us less money.” Instead of giving people two or four weeks of vacation a year to spend with their family and to kind of achieve some kind of semblance of normalcy in their lives, let’s do unlimited paid time off.



Because you know that when you offer them 20 days a year, they only take twelve. Think about that. Now, I’m not saying that every business owner out there has done this because they said, “Ahaha, I looked at the numbers. It will save us literally thousands of dollars a year.”



But some of you out there absolutely know this. Don’t lie to yourself about it. If you’re doing it for those reasons, talk about it in your board meetings. But I hope those meeting notes never become public because you, my friend, have a problem, and that’s the point about it. Right?



And these things sound good. My company flirted with that. We flirted with unlimited time off, and I’m not going to lie about this. I read about it several years ago. I said, “Hey, that’s really interesting!” And this is what the point of this episode is. I’m going to try and give you guys some tools before you go put new stuff in place. Check the stuff that’s being  said—double-check my notes. See if I’m full of crap.



I think you’ll find that I’m not. But the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, is figure out why you’re doing this. So, we started looking at this, and we said, “Man-” And I’m going to give you guys some real-world examples in a minute. We said, “Hey, what does this look like for us? What does this look like for us? How does this work?”



And I started doing some reading on it. I started going into some of the journals, and I found some journals that said, “Hey, the preliminary data on this suggests that actually people take less time off.” That’s not a thing at all. People said that it would make us better, make people happier, and everything else.



And when I started looking at it, we actually did a different thing. We didn’t give them unlimited paid time off. We doubled the amount of vacation we offered our people. And we also, by the way, it’s not vacation. We call it paid time off.



We do actually want to take away some of that stuff at the end of the year. We don’t want that stuff to roll over forever. There’s people out there who think I’m terrible for that. I’m doing that because, in our opinion, you can ask to roll over more time if you have a trip. We want people to take time off for their families.



And by the way, that’s our corporate culture. We want people to take time off in their lives for their families to go do things. I want you to lose some of this stuff. You just can’t roll it over forever. I can’t tell you the number of people I met growing up – primarily men – and they actually got to the end of their long careers, and they’re like, “I’ve got eight months of paid time off saved up, or vacation time, saved off.” And I was like, “Man, why did you wait until you’re 63 years old to take that time? What, is it going to be you on a boat fishing?”



Hey, that’s more power to you if you want to go do that. But life is to be lived. Go do that stuff before- You may not make it to 63. A lot of us don’t! For God’s sake, go spend time with your family and your loved ones.



That’s what I think, and that’s I’m digressing a little bit. But what you want to look at is these other things. Figure out kind of what these things do. Look at what you’ve been told to do and what that looks like. One of the things that we put in place for our employees, and I’m giving this as a real-world business example, which we were looking at, we wanted to put a 401k in place with a match that our employees can invest in, and we could do things with that.



And it was important for saving for retirement because pensions are, kind of, a thing of the past. This is something you need to think about. 401ks are not all created equal, but it turns out that most of the 401ks being offered to you by a lot of the big box people, et cetera, are the same kind of things. They have these huge load costs for, basically, funds that are not being managed.



You don’t really have, for most 401ks, you don’t have an investment advisor. They’re not trading stocks for you. You basically put your money in there, and you set it and forget it. And it turns out that a lot of these funds have load levels of 1 to 2%. You know, kind of in the 150 basis points. There’s 100 basis points in a percentage, 150 basis points. It turns out that if your employees say we need till retirement, they invest in that with an average rate of return of like 10% a year, without getting too much into the numbers, they will actually have like $50 to $150,000 less in retirement than if you did something with a low load fund.



Now, I’m not saying that your advisor can’t be making their money, but if you’re just parking that money there and your employees aren’t really thinking about that, and in my opinion, that’s how most 401ks work, you need to look for something that has lower costs and lower loads on your funds. Because every one of your employees, assuming a normal rate of return, went up with $100,000 extra money at retirement. And I think you have a duty to your employees if you’re trying to create the right place to work that they know that. Our 401K fund, if you want to reach out to me, actually has load costs in the neighborhood, beyond the individual funds, of only about eight to ten basis points. That’s 0.8. The difference in my people at retirement, if they put money into it, is about $100 to $250,000.



That didn’t cost me anything except another three hours of searching. Now, it depends on the fund. This one has a little more upfront cost. There’s a little bit more legwork here. But for me, if I’ve got 20 or 30 or 50 employees, I’ve just created ten to $20 million in wealth just because I spent three extra hours on the Internet figuring out what I’m going to do for my employees.



So, remember, the anecdotal thing was just go get one, put it in place. That was the thing. You need to put a 401k in place. They were totally right, but I wanted to go look at the difference on that. And a lot of the people, the common wisdom was those funds don’t cost you a lot.



That was the common wisdom in that. Yet, you do some back-of-the-napkin calculations, and you find they cost you an awful lot. So, kind of bringing this episode full circle is that; where do you get your information? Well, it turns out a lot of people get their information from one of three places now. And you have three main places. You have anecdotal information. Anecdotal information is a story that you tell somebody else.



And the problem with that is if it’s a friend of yours or another business owner, you might assume that’s true. Anecdotal stories can be valuable, but in my experience, most of them are worthless. You need to go check the source. And I want to go and say one other thing about anecdotal stories.



Posts on somebody’s blog, if they’re a valued, reputable, scientific, or vetted source, or an actual data place, go look at that. A lot of people are just regurgitating the information they read on somebody else’s blog. They may be actually misinterpreting the data. If you got the time and energy, which most of us don’t have, go look at the original data on that.



Figure it out. Challenge your pre-existing notions about things. Social media can be the worst kind of echo chamber, and this is one of the bad things. The misinformation you get on social media- Because of how social media curates content, they’re repeating it back to you.



You are literally in an echo chamber of bad ideas. Some of these could be good, but if they’re someone’s ideas, they’re probably anecdotal in nature. And as I think a lot of them aren’t very valuable. They’re going to reinforce either the good or the bad information you get. Again, you want to go ask when somebody quotes something to you, say, “Where did you find this out? I’m just asking so I can go read about it myself because I’d like to know more.”



Don’t offend them about it. And the last one I’m going to take on here, and this is kind of a sacred thing for a lot of people, is Google. Google is not a fact engine. Stop lying to yourself. Google is an opinion engine.



It is about what information is popular based on the searches and based on your history. What Google thinks, predictably, you might be looking for. If you already have a bad idea and you’re looking for more information on that, and that’s in your history, Google might provide you with more information that would reinforce your crazy bad beliefs. I’m not saying that they’re bad or crazy in themselves. I don’t know.



I haven’t analyzed what you’re looking at. But remember a lot of the stuff, even in those fact cards that drop down, paid ads on Google right at the top, is there any vetting of those advertising beyond things that are illegal? The answer to that question is no. People are advertising and peddling a lot of misinformation. And as somebody who works for an advertising company, I’ve seen this stuff first hand.



So, remember that; a lot of this information is questionable. So, what are today’s takeaways? Number one is check the common wisdom. Uncommon stories are worthless without evidence. They might be real, but they might not.



So, you want to check them and verify it for yourself. Number two, you want to go read the evidence and go to the original source for the information, for the data if you can. Or, at the very least, go to a trusted authority source, not just someone else’s opinion blog. And the third one is that remember that social media is an echo chamber. It will reinforce the good or bad ideas you have.



So, if you’re flipping a coin and making decisions based on that, go for it. But at The Buck Stops Here, we think you should actually double-check that information. And the last piece of this is Google is an opinion and a popularity engine. It is not a fact engine. Undoubtedly, it provides a ton of facts, factual information, but a lot of the information it has is just wrong.



So, if you like what you heard and don’t want to miss another episode, be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you’re listening. Let us know what you think of the podcast and give us a review or comment on YouTube, and your review and comment could be featured on next week’s episode. Next week’s episode is about economic decision-making. It turns out that economic decision-making is a lie. And to quote one of my favorite movies, “A person is smart, but people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.”



It was said by Tommy Lee Jones in an amazing movie called Men in Black. And if you haven’t seen it, I fully recommend it to you in my listening audience. But that being said, it turns out that a person can be smart, but we often overestimate the intelligence of those people. And it’s not that they’re dumb. It’s that as much as we want to make decisions based on rational decision-making processes, we rely on emotion and our gut more often than not.



There are pros and cons to that, and next week, we will talk about that. So, again, thank you for listening. I was your host, David Maples. Go out there, have an amazing week, and be awesome.


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