Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices: 4. Cellular Space is Not the End of Communication

In this fourth instalment of my blog series ‘Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices’ I want to look at common layout choices and the consequences these choices have.

A very popular myth in office design asserts that an open-plan office accommodation is preferable because it increases communication among colleagues in contrast to a cellular office space.  Communication is crucial in our post-industrial society, as it leads to an exchange of information and ideas, and thus allows people to fulfill the complex and coordination-intensive job roles we all have (be it in research, development, teaching, publishing, advertising, designing, programming, selling, marketing etc).  The myth of the superiority of open-plan for communication purposes is compelling, too. An open-plan office creates higher levels of proximity and visibility, therefore communication flows easily and quickly. In a similar vein, cellular space often gets scolded for creating isolation, segregation and silo mentalities; not even to mention it being a more expensive and less ‘efficient’ option. I clearly remember one of my professors in architecture school scorning cellular workspace by calling it solitary confinement (or for the benefit of the German speakers: “Mittelflur mit Einzelhaft”).

So while there is some truth in the assumption that open-plan equals better communication, I will be arguing instead that cellular space is not the end of communication. So let’s look at some research results and empirical data.

In the 1960’s and 70’s open-plan offices regained popularity and with the advent of environmental psychology as a discipline many research studies looked at the changes in communication patterns as an organisation moved from cellular to open-plan office accommodation. They expected to prove the obvious result: an increase in communication. However, the matter was not so easily settled. In my PhD ‘The Space-Organisation Relationship‘ and an associated paper on ‘Spatiality and Transpatiality in Workplace Environments‘ I showed that very ambivalent outcomes were reported. Out of 11 different studies, four of them established an increase in communication, three reported a decrease in communication and four found no changes in communication or mixed results, as organisations moved open-plan. So why would that be the case? As I have argued in my scholarly work, not only did the data gathering methods differ significantly between these studies, also the physical settings varied and most importantly, communication was defined and measured differently (e.g. as ‘sociability’, number of people contacted, time spent communicating, interdepartmental communication, supervisor feedback, etc.). Therefore it shouldn’t surprise us that no common trend was established. But what if we study different organisations with exactly the same methods? This is essentially what I aimed to do in my PhD.

In my own research I found no evidence that generically open-plan offices would always foster communication and that cellular offices would always stand in the way of communication. The graph below shows eleven different organisations that I studied in my PhD. Three of them had cellular accommodation, eight were located in open-plan environments. Through surveys I established the frequency of interaction by asking all staff how often they met each and every one of their colleagues face-to-face (on a scale from 1=hardly ever to 5=daily). The average value of frequency of interaction for all staff in each of these organisations is plotted below. Regarding the structure of the offices (cellular versus open-plan) no clear pattern emerges. The cellular offices are neither among the most interactive nor among the most silent in the sample.

Average frequency of interaction in 11 organisations

Average frequency of interaction in 11 organisations

In contrast, what did matter for the level of face-to-face interaction, was team affiliation and distances among colleagues. In my PhD (see specifically section 7.3.3) I showed that the interaction network densities within teams was reflected in the size of the team (smaller teams tended to interact more among themselves) and the distances separating a team (those located closer to each other communicated more). Clearly in this respect, cellular offices are slightly disadvantaged, since they tend to create longer distances among colleagues, or put the other way round, open-plan offices allow for a dense packing of people and thus tend to create shorter paths all over.

The relationship between cellularised space and interactions becomes even more interesting, if we look at the location of interactions in a cellular workspace.

In a study of a university building in Cambridge in 2012, we found an interesting relationship between the degree of interactivity and office structure. In participant observations of 10 working days, we have observed where people are in the workplace and what they do.

Observation of activities in university building in Cambridge (green: sitting, red: standing, blue: walking, dotted line: interacting)

Observation of activities in university building in Cambridge (green: sitting, red: standing, blue: walking, dotted line: interacting)

If we plot the locations of face-to-face interactions (see graph below) we find that the vast majority of interactions (62%) do not take place close to someone’s desk, but in the social spaces, circulation spaces and shared facilities.

Locations of interactions in a university building in Cambridge (studied in 2012)

Locations of interactions in a university building in Cambridge (studied in 2012)

What is even more striking is the degree of interactivity, i.e. the percentage of people engaged in interactions at any one moment in time (calculated as the number of people interacting divided by the number of people present). Overall, interactivity in this case was 31%, which is relatively high. This means on average and across all different locations in the workplace, 31% of people were found talking to their colleagues. If we look at offices, interactivity drops to 14%, so inside the cellular offices only 14% of people were talking at any one point in time. Essentially this means people were using their offices to get concentrated work done and left their offices in order to communicate with colleagues.

If we drill down even further and compare single offices to double offices (i.e. shared between two members of staff) and group offices (shared between 3 or more people), single offices have the highest interactivity with 18%, followed by group offices with 12% and double offices with only 9%. This means that single offices in fact provide more affordances for face-to-face interaction among staff than shared offices. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, however makes perfect sense if we think about noise emanating from interactions and associated disturbances. It seems that a conversation in a double office is most disturbing, because the office neighbour will most definitely be distracted. A similar thing in fact occurs in most open-plan office environments: while they were made with communication in mind, it remains questionable whether this is actually realised by everyday practices. Often people in open-plan offices either deliberately try to keep conversations to a minimum in order not to annoy their colleagues, or if the place gets too noisy, everyone ends up wearing headphones, again counteracting the original intention of increased communication. In the case of the university building in Cambridge, the group offices were slightly more interactive than the double offices. This may be due to the fact that they were mostly allocated to PhD students and postdocs, who tended to be more chatty in this particular environment and culture. So essentially single offices were used by staff as a meeting space as well as a space for doing concentrated work and therefore afforded more opportunities for communication.

In summary, we can conclude that open-plan offices do not necessarily mean that people communicate more and at the same time cellular offices are not always the end of communication. Sometimes a well-designed cellular space can provide better spaces for communication and provide more affordances and opportunities for people to interact face-to-face than open areas. Whether or not people communicate frequently has to do with the detailed configurational structure of the workplace, the distances created among staff, but also the cultures, tasks and workflows of the organisation.


This is part of the blog series ‘Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices’.
Part 1: The Office Is Not Dead
Part 2: Electronic Contact Mirrors Face-To-Face Contact
Part 3: Movement Helps You Think

2 thoughts on “Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices: 4. Cellular Space is Not the End of Communication

  1. Pingback: Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices: 5. Open-Plan is Not Always From Hell | spaceandorganisation

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

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