We are workplace scientists, specialising in the understanding of the interplay between spatial design and organisational behaviour in working environments. We are particularly interested in how office space affects ‘Zusammenarbeit’ – that is, how people work together.
If we ask you ‘what is the function of a building?’, your answer might well include ‘to give shelter’, or ‘to provide space for certain activities’. Indeed you might well say it depends on the type of building; a factory is there to manufacture products, a school allows children to learn. And of course you’d be right about all of these functions. But stop to consider a more fundamental function that all buildings possess. A social function first posited by Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson in their seminal book ‘The Social Logic of Space‘. That is, that all buildings can either bring people together or keep them apart.
When we think of workspaces, we mainly have the function of bringing people together in mind: we talk about the office as a place where people bump into others; we think of collaboration and knowledge exchange and working together; we might even go as far as to suggest that the main rationale for office space is for people to ‘feel less lonely’, as a recent analysis of co-working spaces suggested. Even critiques of the dreaded open-plan office focus on the presence of others (which is then often perceived as a nuisance).
What is not so much talked about, however, is how exactly togetherness is orchestrated. Who are you together with? Who do you meet most often? And what effect does that have on the organisation as a whole and the way work is organised?
There is of course a simple way togetherness is organised in offices: through a seating plan. Apart from recent trends of ‘activity-based working’, where employees choose a different location in the office based on their task at hand (although that is often still based around team zones), your workplace tells you where to be: at your desk. Once you are assigned a desk, we also know that you spend 44% of your time (on average) at that desk. Research has also established something else: who you talk to most often. Maybe unsurprisingly, physical proximity governs the majority of face-to-face contacts, since the most frequent everyday encounters happen within a range of 10-22 metres from your own workstation. This means seating plans are incredibly powerful tools, as they will foster relationships with other people seated close to you. This is what in research terms we would call a ‘spatial solidarity’, i.e. a social bond induced and maintained by means of space.
Unfortunately, many organisations do not use the power of the seating plan strategically. Often department A will sit in this corner, department B over there and so on depending on availability of space and sometimes who shouts loudest. You may not have noticed, but something rather important has happened here: the organisational silo has emerged. But how so? By overlaying a second important rationale that drives day to day interaction on top of physical proximity: departmental affiliation. You are much more likely to interact with other colleagues in your own department because you often share goals, tasks, experience, disciplinary backgrounds and identities; and so sales people talk to sales people, developers talk to other developers, the creatives talk to other creatives and so on. This ‘silo mentality‘ is often quoted as a main reason why cross functional collaboration does not flourish in organisations which may result amongst other things in needless duplication, business process delay and missing potential business opportunities.
Let’s unpick in a bit more detail how space can contribute to silo mentality. We’ve already introduced proximity as a motivation for people to connect with one another. In addition to this spatial solidarity, we overlay a second layer of solidarity, that of departmental affiliation. In the research literature, this has also been called ‘transpatial solidarity’ (a solidarity able to overcome, or transcend spatial barriers), since it describes who we are and what brings us together (gender, age, background, job role, etc). When both of these solidarities, the spatial and transpatial overlap very tightly, we speak of a correspondence model. The left image below illustrates this with a grouping of blue and purple dots. Imagine blue and purple are two different departments and they are also grouped together spatially. This is what almost every typical seating plan looks like: sales in one corner, marketing in another, product development in yet another place, etc. The stronger the organisational divides are between departments and the larger the distances or spatial barriers (such as being on a different floor of the office), the more pronounced the silo effect is. The illustration on the right shows a non-correspondence model: people from different departments are mixed up in the same space.
Two models of overlapping solidarities: in correspondence or non-correspondence
Management scholar and author Tom Peters has already discussed this effect almost 30 years ago in his paper ‘Get Innovative or Get Dead’:
“I’ve said many times, to the surprise of many people: physical location – in particular, jamming people from disparate functions together in the same room or workspace or cubby hole – is the number one culture change tool that I’ve discovered! Move the accountants to the manufacturing floor: within six weeks the accountants will appreciate the manufacturers, the manufacturers will appreciate the accountants. Put the designers, engineers, manufacturers, and marketers in one location working on a joint product development process: something close to a miracle will invariably occur.” (Tom Peters, 1990: page 23-24)
But why is it that this insight still has not made its way into common practice? We can only speculate. Certainly many organisations value teamwork within departments and proximity enables just that. It might be that it is the most straightforward solution and mixing up people would require additional efforts and might mean overcoming barriers and resistance to change. It might be that organisations are only just beginning to realise the impact space can make on the way their business is run. Space planners might not have understood quite how strategically important seating plans can be.
If anyone needs further convincing of the virtues of mixing people of different departments up and distributing them among space, we can only suggest to visit the headquarters of juice and smoothie producers Innocent. In their office in Ladbroke Grove, Innocent have done just that: people belonging to a department sit dotted around the various floors of the office. Their next desk neighbours are mostly from different departments and so organisational cohesion, trust and knowledge is spread throughout the business. Curious to see this in action? Luckily, anyone can visit Innocent. They do extend an invite to anyone who wants to come, and print this invite handily on each bottle of juice or smoothie they produce. And they mean it, as described in this blog post of someone who took them up on their offer.
What can we learn from this? We would argue that spatial layouts matter in enabling connections between people. Who sits next to whom will drive the frequency of day to day encounters. This can be put to good use to foster relationships between those who might normally not meet each other. It is astonishing to think that Tom Peters suggested this almost 30 years ago and very little has changed in the way that seating arrangements work. So the next time someone tells you they want to break down organisational silos and increase cross-functional collaboration, ask them whether they have considered the functional power of their office building and whether they could change their workplace seating plan.
The run up to Christmas is a timely reminder of the perils of too much choice. I don’t watch much telly, but I have already become aware of the annual barrage of perfume adverts, for brands which I honestly can’t tell apart. And that is before we mention the now traditional cute supermarket ads. All of this is designed to tempt us into buying from the plethora of goods available online and in store, so we can create the perfect festive season.
Before you, perhaps rightly, accuse me of bah humbug, take a moment to consider what psychologists have called the ‘paradox of choice’. The phrase, coined by Barry Schwartz in his book first published in 2004, refers to the phenomenon that too much choice, particularly when it comes to consumer goods in affluent western societies, creates dissatisfaction. This is contrary to what he called the ‘official dogma’ that the way to maximise the welfare of our citizens is to maximise our individual freedom and the way to do that is to maximise our choice.
When choice is de-motivating: a psychological study showed that people faced with a choice of 24 types of jam bought less jam than when they were only offered 6 types.
He cited the ‘jam study’ (run in 2000 by Sheena Iyengar of Columbia Business School and Mark Lepper a psychologist at Stanford), which showed that, simply put, consumers faced with a choice of 24 types of jam bought less jam than when they were offered only 6 types of jam. Schwartz put forward 4 reasons why too much choice can have a negative psychological impact:
Regret and anticipated regret – we may become paralysed and anticipate regret about a choice that could turn out to be less than perfect.
Opportunity costs – the feeling of missing out on an alternative, which we think might have been better.
Escalation of expectations – when multiple choices imply that near perfection is possible and then those high expectations are unlikely to be met.
Self-blame – when we find out that we have made a poor choice relative to expectations or alternatives, we are more likely to blame ourselves for our failure to make a better choice! If there is only one type of jam and it tastes bad, then we can blame someone else.
As Schwartz says ‘everything was better when everything was worse.’
So how does all this relate to the workplace? In recent months I seem to have heard several pronouncements on the virtue of diversity and choice of workplace settings, especially when it comes to open plan and agile working environments. And being the scientific rationalists that we are at brainybirdz, we naturally question broad assertions, especially when there is evidence which doesn’t seem to fit.
We recently ran a workshop on the subject of visibility in open plan workspaces. It was held in an office environment with multiple furniture and locational settings and as part of the event we asked participants to choose where they wanted to work from for both a group collaborative task and an individual task. Afterwards we asked them to reflect on the emotions they felt about the setting they had ‘chosen’ and experienced. Most were positive about their choices, but a small minority were not. It seemed to us that some of this was to do with just the sort of factors that Schwartz talks about. In a variation on the theme of expectations not being met and the possibility that there was another location that would have been better, some found themselves unable to work in the place they originally had in mind because it proved to be a popular spot and other people got there first. In workplaces the choice, even if it is there, is inevitably limited. People very quickly work out favoured places to go based on such factors as access to daylight, privacy, comfort etc. The provision of choice can inadvertently create hierarchy. If the popular locations are ‘always full’ or maybe dominated by people more senior in the organisation, then it is not unreasonable to assume that people could feel more disadvantaged than if everyone had the same identical, uniform, bland workstation to work from.
We’re not saying that choice in the workplace in itself is bad. But neither is it good per se. At another simpler level, if employees perceive there is too much choice of where to work from, they may also, like the jam buyers and like me as a confused perfume consumer, decide the best choice is not to bother at all. Merry Christmas!
Last year in “Is open plan the collaboration magic bullet?” we blogged about the spatial effects on collaboration of an organisation that moved into a single floor open plan workspace from a highly partitioned office accommodated on two floors. Over the last few months we have delved a bit deeper into the evidence and have recently presented our findings at the European Social Networks conference EUSN17, an academic symposium hosted by The Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.
A quick recap. The organisation in question appeared to suffer a noticeable decrease in interactions both within and across departments after they moved to an open plan environment. The opposite of conventional wisdom. We hypothesised about a range of spatial phenomena that might have been at play. For example, we suggested that a 26% decrease in communication within one department in our case study, might be to do with a loss of “intimacy”. In the old office, this department occupied its own enclosed space which was segregated from the rest of the organisation (perhaps allowing communication within the department to flourish), in the new office, this department was in a very open location close to the social hub.
So we decided to take a closer and more scientific look at ‘intimacy’ in workplace settings. We measured this as the size of the 180° visual field from each workstation: if you don’t see very much from your desk, your degree of intimacy is high. We found that there was indeed a significant correlation between intimacy and interaction frequency, but only in the partitioned workspace. In the open plan workspace there was no measurable effect at all. The visibility fields were, as you would expect, much greater on average in the open plan space – intimacy was completely lost. So in the partitioned workplace people communicated less frequently with others face-to-face when their visual fields were large (and hence intimacy low).
In a highly partitioned layout, the less intimate the space the less interaction there was within each department. The same relationship was found with interaction outside departments.
However, we did find that there was another spatial visibility effect at work in open plan space and that was about ‘control’. Control is the phenomenon that is behind our choices of where to sit (which is the topic of another one of our blog posts). That is, we are more likely to seek out a location where we can see what is happening in front of us but cannot be seen by others from behind – we are in ‘control’ of the situation. We measured this as the ratio of the sizes of two different visual fields or isovists: the area of the 180° visual field as a representation of what a person can see from their desk divided by the area of the 360° visual field, which represents the areas from which that person can be seen. The higher this ratio is, the more a person is in control of their immediate surroundings.
Example of one desk with medium levels of control: 180° visual field versus 360° visual field
In the new open plan space we found a direct correlation between control and interaction frequency within departments: the more in control, the more face-to-face communication occurred. Control did not seem to be related to interaction with other departments and was not a significant factor for any type of interaction in the previous partitioned workspace.
In an open plan layout, the higher the visual ‘control’ of the surrounding space the more interaction there was within each department.
It seems as if in open plan space, when intimacy is low everywhere, there are no measurable effects of relative intimacy to be found on interaction patterns. Instead control starts to make a difference. Perhaps control is the next best thing when visibility and openness is ubiquitous and no intimacy can be found.
Of course these findings are based on one case study alone and we should not ignore the effects of culture on the needs for intimacy and control to support more interaction. Another organisation in the same open plan office layout might behave very differently. Nevertheless what we do have is definitive evidence for how maximising visibility may in some cases produce the opposite effect when it comes to interaction and collaboration.
If you are interested in learning more about the effects of visibility in the workplace, our half day short course on 10 Nov 2017 ‘The Visibility Experience’ might be for you.
In our fourth and final blog in our series, we discuss the organisational reality of workplace data collection.
The truth is organisations and businesses of all kinds routinely collect data. The most obvious being financial results. How many products have been sold this week? What is our total revenue for the year? How much have costs gone up this month compared with last month? These are all nicely quantifiable and can be broken down into cost and revenue categories and for many are the core of any performance reporting. In a business context this type of data can easily gain the attention of decision makers and senior management.
So can data about the workplace command the same levels of attention as financial performance or will it simply languish at the back of a report that never gets read?
At one level the answer comes back to the issue we explored in our second blog in this series ‘It depends’. If there is a clear link between the data you are collecting and organisational performance in a way that ties in with key strategic objectives then it should be a no brainer, shouldn’t it? We gave some examples of these kind of linkages in that blog post. Unfortunately this is where organisational reality gets in the way.
It was back in 1992 that Robert S Kaplan and David P Norton published their first article in the Harvard Business Review which introduced the idea of the balanced scorecard – a set of financial and, crucially, operational measures that would give ‘top managers a fast but comprehensive view of the business’ which they likened the to ‘dials and indicators ‘in an airplane cockpit that are essential for ‘the complex task of navigating and flying’. The concept they developed and revisited in 2010, was based on research into 12 companies ‘at the leading edge of performance measurement’ and was subsequently adopted by many other organisations who were interested in looking at their businesses from four different and interrelated perspectives: financial/shareholder, customer, internal processes and, innovation and learning. So far so good; this approach has led companies today to a common understanding that a broad based set of performance indicators can be valuable, even if the specifics of the BSC as originally envisioned by Kaplan and Norton are not always rigorously in place. This is a business environment that should provide scope for many organisations to see the value of workplace data, perhaps in the context of measuring internal capability, especially data collected on a continuous basis. Indeed some have attempted to develop standard workplace metrics. The difficulty first comes in finding enough evidence to make any link with the overall business vision, strategy and objectives, and second, even if that evidence can be demonstrated, the advocate may still struggle to convince the right decision makers. This leads on to another difficulty – fighting for space in the data crowd.
The template for the balanced scorecard as represented by Kaplan and Norton HBR July-August 2007
Kaplan and Norton noted that ‘companies rarely suffer from having too few measures’. They argued that developing a balanced scorecard forced companies to focus on the ‘handful of measures that are most critical’. If you are a senior manager you don’t have time to plough through pages of statistics, you want the executive summary.
Nevertheless, some have tried to create standard workplace metrics, which have relevance to business performance and therefore should make sense within a real organisational context. We have already blogged about Jacob Morgan and his concept ‘Employee Experience Advantage’ and Neil Usher who advocates a very simple approach to workplace measurement also comes to mind. Still, the growing landscape of workplace data collection can look confusing and the complexities of linking workplace design decisions to organisational performance indicators are also not to be underestimated.
At brainybirdz we specialise in understanding the organisational realities, especially in helping organisations to think of the physical workplace as a catalyst for greater collaboration. Generating data is only relevant if it fits into the existing performance measurement landscape and if decision makers are convinced that it does fit and is relevant. Sometimes that task is made easier if data collection is positioned as part of a one off strategic review where presenting evidence about how the workplace is performing can be used as a basis for a decision to invest in a new office fit out or re-location. This may then pave the way for a more continuous approach to collecting and analysing workplace data at a later stage, ideally with some link back into personal or team performance reward systems.
This is our final blog in this four part series about workplace data collection. The other three parts are available here:
Big Data is one of those buzzwords that has risen to popularity over recent years. It sounds important and great. Not just data, no, BIG data. What adds to the myths and mysteries of Big Data is that analysts describe it as the next big frontier and a way to improve innovation, competition and productivity. For the very reason that Big Data seems to solve all business problems, a sense of excitement surrounds the topic. The Big Data hype has reached most industries by now and construction is no different. In 2014, ARUP published a thought piece on the topic (though without explicitly labelling it as ‘big data’) arguing that data will be the new currency in construction. But what exactly is Big Data and is it really superior?
Many different definitions of Big Data exist. Some people describe it simply as larger data sets, others focus on its complexity. One popular definition comes from analysts at Gartner who focus on the 3 V – volume, velocity and variety. So Big Data according to this definition is data that is high in volume, gathered and analysed speedily and constantly, and is of a greater variety than usual, often combining different sources and data sets. A brilliant and critical definition of Big Data comes from social media scholars Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford, who define Big Data in their article ‘Critical Questions for Big Data‘ as:
“We define Big Data as a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon that rests on the interplay of:
(1) Technology: maximizing computation power and algorithmic accuracy to gather, analyze, link, and compare large data sets.
(2) Analysis: drawing on large data sets to identify patterns in order to make economic, social, technical, and legal claims.
(3) Mythology: the widespread belief that large data sets offer a higher form of intelligence and knowledge that can generate insights that were previously impossible, with the aura of truth, objectivity, and accuracy.”
Boyd and Crawford then go on to dispel many Big Data myths, among them the claim that bigger is better and that Big Data is more objective and accurate. They also criticize Big Data for creating new digital divides, taking data out of context and raising ethical issues.
How does this relate to the construction industry and data we might collect in projects around work and the workplace?
One thing to notice is that Big Data is only making a very slow and careful appearance in the realm of workplace. Notable exceptions such as Humanyze aside, Big Data in the field of workplace is rather in its infancy. This is not to say that Big Data studies do not exist. Data sets such as the Leesman index or the Gensler workplace study are increasing in size; comparative studies of workplaces are on the rise, for instance the one we were involved in some years ago on the ‘Generative Office‘, which evaluated 61 office buildings in 2012, or the most recent analysis of social behaviours in the workplace by Koutsolampros et al. But on the whole, Big Data in the workplace is certainly not the norm.
Is this a problem? Definitely not. Big Data can undoubtedly lead to new insights into patterns that weren’t visible with traditional methods of data analysis. But so can carefully crafted studies collecting ‘small data’. There are so many things we do not yet know in the workplace that any type of rigorously collected data will add insights, for instance qualitative data gathered in interviews, ethnographic observations or statistics derived from a clearly defined single source data set. Big is not necessarily better. Yet again, the answer to whether you should collect Big Data is “It depends”. If the problem you need to solve requires real-time analytics, automatically collected data and the combination of diverse sets of data sources, plus you have the resources required including data science capacity and skills, then by all means go for it. Most often though, a clearly defined small scale study, collecting exactly the data that is needed to answer a question can be much more valuable to businesses than jumping on the bandwagon that is Big Data.
Hopefully you are convinced that there is virtue in collecting data as a means to aid decision making, especially if you have read the first part of our blog series ‘What data should we collect?’. Now it’s time to think about the core question: what data is it that you should collect and how can you make the most of it? Our answer? It depends.
“It depends” is a fantastic reply to almost any relevant question that goes beyond yes or no. It was also the theme of a discussion I’ve recently enjoyed with like-minded professionals, business leaders, consultants and freelancers, brought together to discuss the concept of the ‘Minimum Viable Workplace‘ (i.e. what is the minimum that needs to be provided for people to be able to do their jobs). The suggestion that there should be a hashtag on twitter for questions to which the answer is #ItDepends got my little group discussion going on the day. But I’ve used “It depends” many times before in discussions with people, specifically about data collection strategies.
“It depends” as an answer could be seen as lazy or indecisive. But what a good “It depends” answer actually does, is to open up further debate. The conversation could go like this:
What this shows, is that data collection depends on the decision to be made. Too often, especially in a workplace context, we find that people get excited about a particular technology that collects some data without reflecting on what the business needs to decide and act on. In this case the technology (such as a sensor, or a mobile phone app, or a survey tool) dictates what data is collected rather than a thought through business strategy aiding decision making.
Let’s look at some examples:
An organisation might be interested in reducing their energy costs. Sensors collecting data on energy consumption over time, which could then be analysed and aggregated by floors in the building, by teams or possibly by devices using energy (lights in unoccupied rooms, computers left on over night) can highlight where the biggest savings could be made.
A growing business might be thinking about how to accommodate an increasing number of staff in its existing premises. Collecting data on occupancy of desks, meeting rooms and break out areas can put a spotlight on utilisation rates of specific areas, show remaining capacities of spaces and pinpoint potentially under-utilised areas. Low levels of desk occupancy could lead to implementing an activity-based working strategy.
A Sales Director could be concerned about the time the sales force is spending with customers. Again, gathering insights into the numbers of times desks of sales staff are occupied, could provide baseline figures to understand how actual patterns of mobility play out over time, and whether different strategies to get the sales team out on the road are required.
Retention of staff could be high up on the agenda of a business suffering from increasing staff turnover. An employee engagement survey could highlight issues of motivation, leadership or satisfaction. Different data collection strategies could be employed, too, as discussed in a recent study by McKinsey, which used personality tests and a sensor-based data collection of interaction behaviours to solve the same issue and bust long-held myths of the senior management team on what works and what doesn’t.
A co-working space might want to know which shared facilities to offer and where to place them in order to attract new members and keep existing ones. Collecting data on how well facilities are used, possibly combined with a survey of its members (or an app that rates facilities) can give clues on preferences of co-working users. A spatial analysis of where facilities are placed and how easily reachable they are to what group of users could be another data collection strategy to aid this decision on the provision and placement of facilities.
What decision makers do with the data once it is collected is a crucial part of the question about what data to collect. You should always ask: How does my data inform decisions? How does it guide actions? The long answer to “What data should we be collecting?” is therefore “When you know the decisions that need to be taken and you understand the range of possible actions that might be decided on, you will know what data to collect”.
What is also clear, is that there is not a single answer to the question which data helps with which decision. In the examples above, seat occupancy data is useful in two different scenarios (accommodating growth and encouraging the sales force to spend time with customers). It also works the other way, since a single problem such as staff retention could be addressed with different data collection strategies. Which one works best is then a question that depends again, this time on what is feasible, practical, available and manageable. (We will talk about this one in more detail in our next blog, so watch this space).
So when someone answers your request for advice on workplace, or in fact any other data collection with a thoughtful “It depends…”, ask back “On what?”, then lean in and learn from the discussion that unfolds.
It’s time for a confession: we are data scientists but very frustrated ones. Data can shine a light on so much, yet there seems to be much confusion and even anxiety about it. In the face of mounting options of easy and automated methods of workplace data collection, we often get asked what data a business should collect. So here comes our answer in several parts, in the shape of a series of blog posts under the heading ‘What data what should we collect’. Welcome to Part 1: Why bother?
Businesses have taken decisions for hundreds of years, some good ones, some bad ones. So why all this fuss about data, analytics and data science now? Why should businesses collect and analyse their own data, for reasons other than that it appears trendy (and because Google does it, and that must mean it’s right)?
We would argue that data helps business leaders to take better decisions. In workplace design, a data-driven approach can address the needs of an organisation more profoundly than relying on intuition, opinion or office politics alone. The same goes for business strategies, where data can bring intelligence to the table. Ex-CEO of Netscape, Jim Barksdale’s purported statement ‘If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine’ (as quoted in: ‘How Google works‘) emphasises the point.
But what role does data play exactly in decision-making?
Data can be seen as the raw material of bits and bytes that can contribute to information, as human beings begin to contextualise data and understand what they mean. For instance, 15 degrees Celsius in outside temperature is a data point. In the context of a day in August in London, that data point turns into information which tells us about a lousy British summer. Further interpretation turns information into knowledge, which includes guidance on how to act (in this case: wear a coat. Or go abroad for your holiday). Knowledge therefore means ‘knowing what could be done’ and as such has action possibilities already embedded. Through decision-making, possibilities turn into realities and have consequences in the world (if I wear a coat, I won’t freeze). The relationship between data and decision making is visualised below. If you want to read more about the data – information – knowledge relationship, I would recommend chapter 2 of Tina Chini’s ‘Effective Knowledge Transfer in Multinational Corporations‘.
You might now argue that you do not need data in decision making, since good leaders can decide based on their intuition or experience. That’s of course correct (at least partially) and many business decisions are made exactly like that. However, if you think about it very carefully, both intuition and experience follow the same logic from data to information to knowledge to decision making with the only difference that the process is more hidden and less obvious. If I decide based on intuition, I might have a hunch about something and might not be able to verbalise exactly why and how I think this is the right thing to do, but implicitly and subconsciously, I’m likely to follow the above logic. For experience, this is even clearer. Experience comes from accumulated knowledge over time. If I’ve experienced many British summers, I know what to expect and will be prepared. This means the difference between a data-driven decision making strategy and an intuitive, experience-based one is transparency and openness. Collecting data in a logic, open and rigorous way allows others to follow decision making processes. But it might also lead to challenging the unknown biases we all have. Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahnemann has explained the inevitable prejudices built into our reasoning as a problem of ‘Thinking fast and slow‘. Fast thinking, or intuitive judgments are often biased, because we don’t have the full story and processing statistics for example requires slow, effortful thinking. Thus a data-driven approach might not only be more transparent, but also more likely to lead to better results.
A particularly concise way of describing the relationship between data and deciding comes from Scott Berkun in his excellent book “A year without pants“, which tells the story of his work at WordPress.com. Scott contends that:
“Data can’t decide things for you. It can help you see things more clearly if captured carefully, but that’s not the same as deciding.”
This sums up nicely what data does: allowing you to see things more clearly. Berkun is also addressing another important point – the need to capture data carefully according to scientific principles. So data may lead to decision making by turning data into information and then knowledge, but data alone does not decide. It is human beings that do that and, hopefully, powered by data.
What happens when 21 people volunteer to take part in a live workplace experiment? An experiment that tests what factors govern the choices people will make when asked to find a work setting for a collaborative team task?
A couple of weeks ago we embarked on what was in itself an experimental formula: a kind of mash up of a spatial theory seminar, interactive workshop and live experiment, with some data collection.
Our ‘lab rats’ gamely volunteered themselves for this process; professionals from a range of backgrounds though mainly from workplace design and Facilities Management. Our laboratory was kindly provided by Herman Miller, in the shape of their newly fitted out showroom in Aldwych, London. This meant we had a range of furniture types and spatial locations to play with.
When we at brainybirdz first discussed the idea and then went on to design the ‘experiment’, it soon emerged that there was so much potential in the format, that it could easily take a day to run. But we only had 1 ½ hours at our disposal. With that caveat, we think we have nevertheless gained some significant insight from the event. And luckily our participants seemed also to find their own insights, which was an important objective too.
Our main finding was perhaps a surprising one. The participants were allowed to choose a workplace setting for a collaborative team task having first explored the showroom. We had expected there to be convergence around maybe two or three favoured locations, but with 10 teams, 8 favourites were identified. Then, when the teams were asked to go and occupy a work setting to actually complete the task, only 4 teams ended up in the location they originally chose.
Based on the feedback we received and our own previous research, it appears several inter-related factors were at work in these divergent choices. These were:
Perception of the task
Spatial visibility is a way of describing the spatial quality of any location within a complex floorplan in terms of how visible it is to everywhere else. We use a software tool to measure this, but broadly speaking an central open space with good lines of sight will show up with high visibility and an enclosed space in a tucked way in a corner somewhere will have low visibility or be secluded. In our experiment, four of the favourite work settings identified were in visible locations and six in secluded locations. Even though several teams ended up in a different location to the one originally chosen, team preferences for seclusion or visibility did not change, meaning for example that a team unable to work from their first choice secluded location then found themselves an alternative secluded setting. One team who chose and remained in a visible location, admitted that they had benefitted from seeing what other teams were doing in the collaborative task. Teams who chose to be more segregated mentioned the need for uninterrupted focus on the task.
Daylight was a factor specifically mentioned by some teams. One team that wanted a secluded spot managed to find one that also gave them access to daylight, which they reported was important to them. Three of the teams in visible locations within the showroom were also close to the window and two of them explicitly mentioned light as being a factor in their choice and the other team mentioned light as an important quality of their location.
Secluded and with daylight: one of the favoured team task locations
Furniture had an impact in a number of ways.
Comfort was the most often mentioned factor (9 out of 10 teams). People said they were comfortable in a number of different settings not just in upholstered sofas or chairs.
The way the furniture was positioned to allow those, in the mainly two person teams, to communicate and look at the same materials together was also mentioned as was having a large enough table top both to write on and to put down cups of coffee etc.. Capacity was also an issue – one team reported that they ruled out some locations because they seemed to big for just two people and clearly one-person settings were not chosen.
However adaptability was the other most significant factor after comfort. For one team this meant being able to sit or stand, but interestingly, more generally there were several references made to liking the possibility of changing the environment around, depending on what it would turn out was needed.
A work-setting that afforded space for writing during the team task
Personality type was not a factor we explicitly investigated. But it became evident from the comments that some made, that the choices around secluded and visible locations might well have something to do with introverted and extroverted personality types. This has been researched to some degree elsewhere and is a line of investigation that we think needs more attention.
Team dynamics can perhaps be seen as an extension to the ideas on personality type. In our experiment the teams of two, and in one case three people, were constituted on the day between participants who didn’t previously know each other. Some reported that they chose their favourite location because both team members had previously liked it. Others may have made choices because there was one, more dominant team member, whose preferences held sway. If the task had been an individual one, then people’s choices would have been totally individual and the resulting occupancy pattern maybe very different. Something else to investigate further.
Perception of the task was also crucial when it came to location choices. The original briefing was simply that participants should choose a favourite work setting where they could do a collaborative team task. When participants were asked to go and occupy a setting for the task, they were given more information and had a better idea of what might be involved. This may have contributed to the 6 out of 10 changes in where teams ended up compared to the favourite they had previously identified. It was not just that the spots they wanted were already taken.
Frequency of adjectives mentioned to describe the settings used for the collaborative team task
So in what was admittedly a small scale experiment, it seems clear that the interplay of all these factors set against the pool of what work settings are actually available will lead to divergent outcomes. This means there is no such thing as the perfect work setting for everyone, even if the task is specified. Adaptability and choice has to be key with an underpinning of comfort for all. Although this is a mantra often heard in workplace design, we now have some real evidence to back it up and, as is always the case in science, we have a lot of new questions that still need further investigation. Watch this space.
We are always on the look out for research that can demonstrate the link between workplace design and business performance, so it was with huge excitement that we discovered Jacob Morgan’s “The Employee Experience Advantage”, with the slightly lengthy subtitle of “How to win the war for talent by giving employees the workspaces they want, the tools they need and a culture they can celebrate”. It seems to be one of the very few business books actually considering the design of the physical workspace of an organisation as an important factor. So I read my way through the almost 300 pages and wanted to share my insights from an architectural perspective.
Jacob Morgan 2017
So let me summarise the main argument first.
Jacob Morgan suggests that the recent business focus on employee engagement has not exactly led anywhere. He maintains that relevant statistics, for example engagement as measured by the Gallup Institute is stalling. Instead he proposes that organisations focusing on employee experience rather than employee engagement have an actual competitive advantage. Experience, in his view, requires a more holistic, all encompassing view of work than ‘mere’ engagement.
Through extensive interviews with HR and business leaders, as well as a literature review, Jacob Morgan established a scorecard comprised of 17 separate items, grouped into three different domains of influence: the physical workspace (4 items), technology (3 items) and organisational culture (10 items). He then analysed over 250 global organisations and put them into a ranking, which is available as Employee Experience Index from his website. The overall ranking is led by Facebook as an overall number 1, followed by Google, Apple and LinkedIn. Those four (in a different order) are also the four highest scored organisations on their physical workspace.
The way organisational culture is assessed looks interesting (e.g. employees feel valued and as part of a team, employees are treated fairly, ability to learn new things, managers act as mentors, organisation believes in diversity and inclusion) and technology is equally measured by interesting criteria (latest consumer grade technology, available to everyone, balancing employee needs with business requirements). But let’s have a closer look at the criteria for physical workspaces. The four criteria together make up the abbreviation COOL: Chooses to bring in friends or visitors, Offers flexibility, Organisation’s values are reflected and Leverages multiple workspace options.
First of all, of course, it is great to see that the physical workspace indeed has become something to talk about in business books, and that workplace design is being considered as crucial contribution to an organisation’s performance.
What is striking here, however, is the fact how little those four factors actually talk about the physical design of the workplace. The only aspect that looks at spatial layout in slightly more detail is leveraging multiple workspace options. The idea that different tasks and activities require different spatial settings has been on the agenda of workplace professionals for decades now. Upon closer scrutiny, offering flexibility is not at all about the physical building, but rather whether employees are allowed not to come into the physical workspace, but work from elsewhere. The two other aspects are design related, but remain rather fuzzy. Great design (whatever that may be), makes employees proud, hence they like to bring in friends or visitors. However, it is unclear what this great design entails, or how it would be judged. Organisations that look like they live the values they propose is an important point. Morgan argues that “the physical space acts as a type of symbol for the organisation” (p. 69). It is easy to see how values such as ‘innovation’, ‘collaboration’ or ‘fun’ could be reflected in a physical design – just look at the workspaces of a lot of technology companies. But how would this work for more abstract values? Just to pick a random example: FedEx is a company not doing very well on the ‘COOL’ spaces as ranked by Morgan. Their values (according to their website) include people, integrity, service, innovation, responsibility and loyalty. What would that mean for a physical design? But maybe what is even more difficult here is the disconnect that can often be found between the espoused values and the actual culture of an organisation. In our view the physical space will always portray how things get done in a place and thus show the underlying culture. This may not be the same as the core values the senior management team aspire to. This shows how complex this issue is and how problematic it is to rate it on a linear scale.
Leaving culture to one side for now, there are many more things in a physical workspace that matter when it comes to how people can get their job done. This could include how much an office brings people together or keeps them apart – this would be relevant for all sorts of detailed questions: how easy it is to concentrate? How accessible are colleagues? Am I constantly visibly controlled and supervised by my line manager? Does the physical space reinforce organisational silos or does it help overcoming them? Can I have a conversation without being overheard? How close is good coffee and who do I meet there? Do I encounter people spontaneously? Can I find a meeting space easily when needed? Does the office allow me to have good conversations with the right people at the right time?
Jacob Morgan doesn’t cover those important questions in his assessment of the physical workspace of an organisation. Clearly, this book is a great starting point for a conversation about the role of physical workspace and business performance. But there is still much more to be explored in the relationship between people, workspace and organisations.
We spend a lot of time observing and thinking about office design and the effect it has on people’s behaviour, so what better working environment to study than the ever growing and fashionable phenomenon that is co-working space? Our interest was particularly piqued by a visit we made during last September’s Open House London weekend.
Faced with the ever growing list of buildings to see during Open House London, Second Home in Hanbury Street, just off Brick Lane, jumped out of the website search of office spaces. Open House ‘weekend’ turned out to be the operative word, when you find yourself walking round an old carpet factory, which has been re-purposed as a co-working environment for innovative start-ups and is an integral part of the founders’ objective to build ‘a diverse ecosystem of creative people and organisations that are capable of having a collaborative and synergistic relationship with one another’ …and there is no one working in it – because it is the weekend!
So the aesthetic is what dominated the senses – the curves, the 1000+ plants and trees, the shininess, the eclectic mix of mid-century furniture. But anyone who knows us, also knows that, although we can fall in love with a beautiful building with the best of them, we also care a lot about investigating how buildings really work for their inhabitants in practice.
Labyrinthine co-working spaces at Second Home, Hanbury Street, London
Indeed the HOK report Coworking: A Corporate Real Estate Perspective published last year, also raised several questions in our minds on the subject. According to the report, ‘the majority of coworkers come because they want to feel part of a community. They are looking to connect, socialise, share knowledge and brainstorm’. What most co-workers (74%) like about co-working is ‘interacting with others’. In a world of office design where affording collaboration is often seen as some kind of holy grail, we have been intrigued to understand what exactly it is about the design of co-working spaces that people are obviously experiencing as a place to make connections. So much so that, as the HOK report mentions, ‘KPMG may redesign some offices to look more like WeWork spaces.’
Fast forward 6 months and we have recently been lucky enough to get an insiders’ tour of the two relatively new Interchange co-working spaces in Camden Market – ‘Triangle’ and ‘Atrium’. OnOffice featured ‘Atrium’ in a write up after it opened last year and talked extensively about the physical design features of the space, (by architects Barr Gazetas working alongside Tom Dixon’s DRS), as the underpinning of a community ‘aimed at startups and creatives,’ where ‘the design looks to foster a more collaborative approach to co-working’.
Communal co-working space at Interchange Triangle, Camden Market, London
This time our visit was on a weekday morning and we could not only observe people at work, but also interrogate the very helpful Operations Manager about patterns of use and member feedback.
What we discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a high level of difference between all three co-working spaces, Second Home, Triangle and Atrium. Get past the aspirational Tom Dixon lighting, floor finishes and pot plants and what you have is a very different vibe in each space, yet all three are espousing collaboration as a design objective. So how does this work?
Co-working at Interchange Atrium where cellular spaces are linked by an internal ‘street’, which snakes up around and above the communal space in the atrium itself
The Interchange spaces are consistent with each other to the extent that they believe that space for concentrated work is as important as communal collaboration space. Much of the total 43,000 sqft in both buildings is dedicated to cellular, sound proofed offices, which can be flexibly sized to fit a range of business from two or three up to around 100 people. Second Home by contrast, majors much more on open plan areas, which can be shared with others from different enterprises, although they also provide dedicated cellular space, especially to meet the needs of businesses that are becoming successful and are growing.
But it is the configuration (or the way each space is connected with other spaces), which reveals the real differences between the three co-working examples. At Interchange Atrium there is a ramped walkway around the outside of the central atrium connecting all the cellular spaces together in what was originally designed as a market hall. This feels more like a street, and the distances required to reach the majority of central and sizeable communal areas are relatively large. Interchange Triangle is much more densely occupied with short distances to relatively small communal facilities that are dotted around each floor plate.
In addition, at Atrium, the visibility around the whole building (that is how much on average is visible from each point in the building to the rest) is high, but in Triangle by comparison very low, where fields of vision within each floor plate are quite short, even with full height glazed partitioning and there is no visibility between floors at all. However when it comes to the interface with the outside, Triangle has superb views out into Camden Market and London beyond, whereas these external views are much more limited in Atrium. At Second Home, visibility is quite high locally, for instance between the communal hub at the front of the building and the work space immediately behind and above, with a wide interconnecting staircase and mezzanine that provide visual links between floors. However there are several work areas which are very hidden away – some have been deliberately set up to provide intimate informal meeting or individual quiet working areas – but others feel very disconnected from the main bustle of the rest of the building only accessible through a labyrinth of meandering corridors. It is likely that those occupants will spend much less time ‘ bumping into’ other people on a random basis. External views are not really a feature of Second Home, which is maybe one of the reasons why the thousands of plants have been brought inside.
Configurational differences in the three co-working spaces
So the factors at play are: internal and external visibility; distance; and proportions of space allocated to communal or individual business needs. We do not suggest that one way is somehow better than another. What does matter is need – the needs of the people and businesses that these spaces are hoping to attract and retain. Despite the attraction of flexibility for users, co-working space operators understandably, for economic reasons, want members to stay and grow with them. Interchange emphasise the need for separated quiet space which they say reflects what members tell them they want and many of whom are past the first phase of entrepreneurial start up. Collaboration and community is however, also seen as important and Interchange invest resources in setting up regular events that members can attend – they indicated that a significant number do, although it is a minority who are regular attendees. In Second Home, the ‘hosts’ have a very active role in bringing start-ups together who might have a mutually beneficial interest. They also run a punishing schedule of events with high profile speakers, which seem to attract big audiences. We have a hunch that given the variability of the design of our small sample size of three, that the role of collaboration facilitator could be crucial and perhaps more crucial than the design of the space itself. Spatial design can certainly be used to facilitate bringing people together or to keep them apart – it is a complex field and the factors are multiple and interconnected. If we were in KPMG commissioning new office designs based on the co-working space model, we would be spending a lot more time investigating what it is that the business is really looking to achieve and be delving into the complex detail of the design configurations that could support that. And only then would we allow ourselves some fun with the Tom Dixon lights.
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