‘The Science of Who Sits Where at Work’ – A Spatial Perspective

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal on ‘The New Science of Who Sits Where at Work‘ highlighted some interesting facts about behaviours of people in the workplace: the fact that 40-60% of our interactions are with immediate office neighbours; that bringing people from different teams and departments into close proximity can increase productivity; and that emotions and moods are contagious and create specific cultures and atmospheres in the office.

However, the article did not consider the architectural or spatial perspective at all – how are workplaces designed? How does the layout of an office have an impact on interactions and people’s behaviours? Therefore I wanted to offer some thoughts on this based on my own research in the field, which was done in the tradition of ‘Space Syntax‘.

Here are some of the things we know about how and why spatial configuration matters:

  • Generative offices, i.e. those that allow the creation and generation of new ideas, new encounters and new knowledge are more integrated as a whole. This means generative offices are more compact and have shorter walking distances. Integration is a measure in Space Syntax research that depicts where the centre of gravity lies in a building. It shows which areas are easiest to access and reach. Workplaces that are highly integrated overall, were found more generative by occupants. [See the full scientific paper by Sailer et al 2012 on ‘The Generative Office Building‘]
  • Occupancy studies show that in knowledge-intensive workplaces people spend around 50% of their time at their desk. So clearly it is important who sits where. But it is also important where people spend the rest of their time, and even more so how they get to those other locations. Paths in the office are crucial – if they lead past other people’s workstations, a process of ‘recruitment’ can take place: a person sitting at their desk can start interacting with someone walking past (because they know the walking person won’t be disturbed in a task). [See the full scientific paper by Backhouse and Drew 1992 on ‘The design implications of social interaction‘ as well as a follow-up paper by Penn et al 1999 on ‘The Space of Innovation‘]
  • The location of attractors, i.e. tea and coffee making facilities, printers, photocopiers plays an important role in affecting movement flows in workplaces. Areas that are highly integrated in an office attract people naturally, but areas with sought after functions attract people likewise. Movement flows are a combination of building configuration and attractor placement – this is important, since movement is crucial for bringing people together and allowing for encounters. [See the full scientific paper by Sailer 2007 on ‘Movement in Workplace Environments‘] Oh, and by the way, people are willing to walk longer distances for ‘attractive attractors’ such as the right type of coffee.
  • Arranging important attractors close to the integration core of a building means bringing people together in one central place (centralisation strategy), whereas locating attractors in more segregated areas means distributing people more evenly in a building (distribution strategy). Each strategy – centralising and distributing people – can have its merits depending on organisational goals and workflows. [See the full argument in chapter 5.2.1 of Sailer 2010 ‘The Space-Organisation Relationship‘]
  • People indeed tend to interact with those sitting closest to them. Interactions that occur at a daily frequency are between people that are sitting an average of 18-25 metres away from each other. [See the full scientific paper by Sailer and Penn 2009 on ‘Spatiality and Transpatiality‘]
  • Spatial distances between people even matter, if other reasons for interactions are taken into account, for instance team affiliation and usefulness of a contact. If those other variables are controlled for, distances between the desks of people still account for interaction patterns and network structures of who talks to whom. [See the full scientific paper by Sailer and McCulloh 2012 on ‘Social Networks and Spatial Configuration‘]
  • While a large proportion of interactions takes place in close vicinity around people’s desks, social and public spaces like kitchens and common rooms account for the majority of interactions. In a still unpublished recent study of a university department we found that 38% of interactions occurred within offices, but 52% of interactions took place in social spaces (kitchen, common room, canteen, library) and 10% took place in the corridors and hallways of the building.
  • The same study showed that interactions seek out integrated places. If we map average integration values of various activities, interacting is the most integrated activity, closely followed by people walking. Interestingly, the most segregated activity is people talking on the phone. Clearly, spatial configuration governs behaviours and distributes activities across space.
  • And again results from the recent study of a university department showed that offices occupied by more than one person are not always guaranteeing higher levels of interactivity (i.e. the proportion of people interacting versus people present). Interactivity was higher in single offices (18%) than in double offices (9%) or group offices (12%). It seems that single offices invite others to come in for conversations, while double offices and group offices prohibit interactions to some degree for the fear of disturbing co-workers.

To summarise, clearly spatial configuration matters: it brings people together or pulls them apart; it governs who we talk to; where we meet people in the office; and how we move around our workplaces.

So this was all theory. How about practice? Designing workspaces based on scientific evidence (such as the insights quoted above) is becoming ever more popular and I want to end this post with some light viewing.

The new new office of Virgin Management was designed by architects and workplace consultants Spacelab using Space Syntax as a method during the design process to inform design decisions. And the users certainly liked their new workplace as the video below testifies. So it’s not only about ‘who sits where’, but more generally about the affordances a layout and design has to offer.

6 thoughts on “‘The Science of Who Sits Where at Work’ – A Spatial Perspective

  1. Pingback: Work Place « Public Strategist Public Strategist

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  5. Pingback: Figures, doors and passages – revisited. Or: Does your office allow for sociality? | spaceandorganisation

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