Three Dimensions of Interaction in Office Design

Three Dimensions of Interaction in Office Design

By: Jill Mendoza We are all aware of the growing enthusiasm for replacing private offices with open floor plans in order to encourage community and collaboration. More than a dozen studies have examined the behavioral effects of such redesigns. There’s some evidence that removing physical barriers and bringing people closer to one another does promote casual interactions. But there’s a roughly equal amount of evidence that because open spaces reduce privacy, they don’t foster informal exchanges and may actually inhibit them. Open floor plans, or indeed any type of design, can either encourage or discourage informal interactions, depending on a complex interplay of physical and social cues. Over the past 12 years HBR (Harvard Business Review) has conducted nine studies of the effects of design on interaction, looking at organizations in the United States, Europe, and Asia. They surveyed the extensive literature on the subject and interviewed dozens of managers about their office redesigns. The sum of their research reveals that a space may or may not encourage interaction depending on how it balances three dimensions, or “affordances,” that have both physical and social aspects. These three dimensions of interaction in office design are: proximity, privacy, and permission. This 2011 article in HBR is a good review of the three dimensions one must align when planning todays work environment. Additional, traditional space utilization formulas based upon the square footage per any one individual or group of individuals no longer provide the best data.  The question most are striving to answer is how do you calculate the quantitative space needs for those who work quietly in a focused or individual space 50% of the time, collaboratively in a group setting 10%, or in social space, say 25% of the time and perhaps at home 15% of the time?  To complicate matters further, say you have 50 individuals in one specific group that have varying ranges for these space needs at any given time throughout the work day. One thing is for certain; workspaces only work if the people believe they work for them. It is becoming clear that physical space does reflect corporate culture.  People want to live the organization they want to be.  Work space should be a living diagram of the organizational chart or hierarchy and reflect the values that we are all connected; physically, professionally and culturally. Today’s workers need the following components to do their work; none of which are best facilitate by an individual desk: Phone/Computer/Monitors/technology Team Space Private Space Social Space Workers want spaces with all these components but they also want to determine the amount of time spent using them to do their work. Take for example this inside perspective of airbnb’s new west coast office space. The design reflects the unique business model and culture of airbnb’s organization and incorporates the many progressive dimensions of collaborative and open work environments that continue to develop. At airbnb’s west coast office they have successfully undergone a transformation from a tech company to a hospitality company.  They have taken a corporate mission theme of “giving one a feeling of belonging anywhere” and translated those ideals into space. For airbnb the three dimensions of interaction (proximity, privacy, and permission) have been translated to: WORKFLOW, PRIVACY, & CULTURE. Some may view this example as extreme or unique to one specific company. I believe airbnb’s office is a wonderful example of where we are headed. Design creates dimensional synergy, especially now, when no simple formula for balancing the three P’s, particularly as the boundary between physical and virtual worlds increasingly blurs. But organizations whom grasp the fundamentals and design with balance in mind will be better equipped to understand and predict the effects of spaces on interactions and to learn from successes—and inevitable mistakes they and others are willing to share.

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