Open space offices produce invisible walls

With the appearance of advanced sensors in our environment, we are now able to better assess whether open space office layouts truly encourage collaboration and communication. The results might not surprise you: employees have created alternative boundaries between them and others. Future office space will probably be adjustable to changing needs.

The knowledge workers of the past few decades have evolving requirements from their work environment. They need to focus as well as to relax. They want the time, place and quiet to work alone but at the same time also need to interact and collaborate. To meet all these requirements, the physical office space has evolved a few times in recent years. At first, private office doors were removed in favor of cubicles. Later, these same cubicles were removed and replaced by open spaces with various work environments including long shared tables, hot-desks, shared office seating areas, lounges, various conference rooms and even tiny “phone booths”.

Behind these changes stands the perception that doors and walls limit communication and conversation. The idea was that if we allow people from different teams, ranks, even organizations to interact without physical boundaries, they will collaborate and create groundbreaking ideas.

The novelist, John le Carré, once wrote that “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world”. And so with this process we stepped away from the standard office desk. But the really interesting question remains whether this elimination of the physical boundaries in office architecture actually changed the way people interact in the office? Did we get the desired outcome? Do people really collaborate more, are they more productive and more efficient?  

What the sensors reveal

The availability of sensors in our world today enables us to explore the answers to these questions. Sensors in office chairs allow us to measure for how long we actually work sitting down and where, sensors around the building track our movement around other office areas. The sensors in our smart phones as well as those on our employee ID badges can track where we are, with whom, doing what. Voice sensors can analyze our speech, volume, talk-to-listen ratio and camera sensors equipped with face recognition can analyze our facial expressions and assess our reactions. We leave digital imprints in every meeting, every communication, email, web activity, app and conversation and even as we physically move throughout the day. And even if this awareness makes you uncomfortable, you are likely to get used to it quickly when you begin to get value from all this information in the form of a working environment that adjusts to your needs and preferences, that knows how to create the right interactions for you, with the right people, at the right moment and location.

A 2018 Harvard study  made use of wearable sensors in order to test the impact of open space on patterns of interaction, including face-to-face, email and chat. In two cases, where company headquarters were moved from closed office structure to open space, the research could study what was termed the “anatomy of collaboration”. Surprisingly, the study found that the change in office layout caused face-to-face interactions to decrease by 70% while digital communication increased by 50%. Apparently, when people want to avoid interaction, they find multitude of ways to do that, including avoiding eye contact, working with headphones and ignoring smartphones and apps. It is not uncommon these days to encounter people, especially younger generation, who have their phones’ permanently set on Do Not Disturb mode. And this need drives the constant development of various apps and methods aimed at filtering unwanted distractions and interruptions.

Denis Diderot, an 18th century French philosopher, named this phenomenon “the fourth wall”, observing it in situations such as the separation of the audience from the actors on stage or of basketball player shutting out the noisy auditorium. This is the virtual wall that creates the privacy we need. The louder the crowd, the larger the importance of this wall.

Harvard researchers claimed that employees working in open space find ways to create their own fourth wall and people around them learn to recognize and respect the boundary. That’s why when you can tell someone is concentrating it is widely accepted not disturb them. And if you did disturb them and received that “look”, you probably won’t do it again. This process creates a social cultural process creating invisible walls where the physical ones are missing.

The Allen Curve is still relevant

Another study, conducted by Microsoft, checked which elements in the work environment most influenced productivity and satisfaction for software engineers. The interesting conclusion from the research was that there isn’t one single way to promote efficiency among employees, yet it was suggested that productivity of software engineers is higher if they work in private offices rather than in open space.

And yet, there is a built-in tension between personal efficiency and team efficiency and sometimes, what is best for my own productivity does not necessarily correlate with the needs of the team. The fact that sometimes people do not like to be disturbed might imply that a closed door working environment is better, as it allows them to work with no interruptions. However, that very same environment might block the ability of another team member to access their team-mate in critical project interactions, which might hinder the overall team progress. 

This is probably the place to remember that the many roles, including those of software engineers, changed significantly in the last decade. Other than the physical architecture of workplaces, we have experienced large shifts in the digital architecture that surrounds us as employees as well as teams and organizations. Many teams work globally and are equipped with an average of 11 different types of communication and collaboration tools. This is a very different work environment to that of phone calls and meetings, which used to be the main communication channels a few decades ago.

So, if our workspace is not necessary a physical location and we can work, communicate, meet and share through screens and tools, is it possible that physical proximity within the actual office space is no longer of much importance? In 1977, MIT Professor Thomas Allen defined, what is today known as The Allen Curve, which demonstrates the relationship between physical distance and communication. According to The Allen Curve, the odds of us communicate with someone seated two meters away from us are four times higher than the likelihood of us communicating with someone seated 20 meters away. According to an MIT study, the Allen Curve holds true today more than ever, in spite of all the tools we now have to ease our communication across distances. In fact, the study found that engineers who shared a physical office were 20% more likely to stay in touch digitally as well, compared to those who worked elsewhere. And co-located employees emailed four times as frequently compared to the email traffic with their co-workers in other locations.  

Therefore, the question today is not if we need to give up on open space in favor of the private offices of the past. Here, too, we can assume that new technologies will help us and future office will probably include a mix of private rooms as well as different types of open spaces. Now that we understand that a private office desk behind a closed door is not the only place where people work, we can leave behind past perceptions about its size and other status symbols that private office used to represent. Instead, we should think about private offices as the tool for people to work in private and concentrate, if they so choose, and supply that office with only what it needs to serve that purpose. In addition, smart buildings, equipped with sensors, will be able to allocate people to the right spaces at the right moments, based on personal preferences and situational needs, thus allowing organizations to manage a smaller private rooms to employees ratio. These two facts combined, reducing the size of the rooms to the minimum needed for privacy and quiet and decreasing the number of offices based on usage data, will allow organizations to re-do their office space to allow for the optimal yet  minimal private space while being able to allocate space for other usages, including meetings, collaboration, interactions as well as breaks and relaxation.

The new objective should probably be to create our work environments, both the physical as well as the digital ones, so that they will support connecting the right people in the right manner at the right place and time. And in the next few years we will continue to learn, with the help of new technology, how our physical work environment enables us at any given moment, task and interaction to do what we need to do and what digital tools should support that. So that we can go out and do something wonderful.

Published by Globes, Israel business news – en.globes.co.il – on February 26, 2020

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Nirit Cohen

Nirit leads an innovative conversation on the future of work and the strategies required to transform careers, organizations, management as well as broader economic and social systems such as education and civil service.

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