Deploying a technique called work value analysis, Sassone measured not only the amount of work conducted by his subjects, but also the skill level required for the work. He found that managers and other skilled professionals were spending surprisingly large percentages of their time working on tasks that could be completed by comparably lower-level employees.
He identified several factors that explain this observation, but a major culprit was the rise of “productivity-enhancing” computer systems. This new technology made it possible for managers and professionals to tackle administrative tasks that used to require dedicated support staff.
The positive impact of this change was that companies needed less support staff. The negative impact was that it reduced the ability of managers and professionals to spend concentrated time working on the things they did best.
Among other examples uncovered in his case studies, Sassone highlighted:
A corporate marketing department where senior marketing professional were spending more than a day per week of their time preparing charts and graphs for presentations.
A large commercial bank where corporate bankers were devoting more than a quarter of their time to handling routine interactions with clients.
This reduction in the typical deep-to-shallow work ratio (see Rule #1 in Deep Work) became so pronounced as computer technology invaded the front office that Sassone gave it a downright Newportian name: The Law of Diminishing Specialization.
What makes Sassone’s study particularly fascinating is that he used rigorous data collection and analysis methods to answer the question of whether or not this diminishing specialization was a good trade-off from a financial perspective.
His conclusion: no.
Reducing administrative positions saves some money. But the losses due to the corresponding reduction in high-level employees’ ability to perform deep work — a diminishment of “intellectual specialization” — outweighs these savings.
I suspect that most of the "innovation" in how corporations hire and plan out their office spaces is driven more by the bottom line than improvements in performance.