The Myth of Short Ways

Spatial proximity allows short ways and efficient coordination. This narrative of the cult of presence sounds plausible, but it is not true—especially not in large organizations.

As the world is falling apart, markets are collapsing and the survival of companies is threatened, please let there be order in the office again. At least there. To be able to respond quickly, short distances are essential and these are only to be found in open-plan offices. In theory, at least. In practice, a short spatial distance does not automatically mean short distances for cooperation. On the contrary.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

H. L. Mencken

The closer and more open people sit together in the office, the better the teamwork according to the common narrative of the prevalent cult of presence. Instead of picking up the phone or writing an e-mail, the matter can be clarified much easier and better having a short conversation at a colleague’s desk in the same open-plan office. So much for the theory that continues to serve as the basis for designing office landscapes. A serious mistake, as the studies by Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban showed.

In their first study, the two researchers accompanied the conversion of an entire floor of a Fortune 500 company from individual cubicles to an open-plan office. They recorded the time spent in face-to-face interactions between colleagues before and after the redesign and noticed a decline of a staggering 73%. Communication did not stop, however, but had shifted. The use of email increased by 67% and that of instant messaging by 75%.

If you’ve ever sought refuge from the gold-fish bowl of an open-plan office environment by cocooning yourself with headphones, or if you’ve decided you’d rather not have that challenging conversation with a colleague in front of a large group of your peers, and opted to email them instead, then these findings will come as little surprise.

Christian Jarrett in Open-plan offices drive down face-to-face interactions and increase use of email

The second study at another Fortune 500 company was similar, but focused on pairs of colleagues interacting with each other. The 100 employees in this study formed 1830 such “dyads”, of which 643 actually reduced their face-to-face interactions and only 141 increased them after moving to an open-plan office. Overall, face-to-face interactions decreased by 70% due to the open office design and the use of e-mail increased by between 22% and 50% (depending on the estimation method). The two researchers came therefore to the right conclusion:

While it is possible to bring chemical substances together under specific conditions of temperature and pressure to form the desired compound, more factors seem to be at work in achieving a similar effect with humans.

Ethan S. Bernstein, Stephen Turban

Spatial proximity is therefore no guarantee for close collaboration. In addition, in large corporations, work is always distributed despite physical proximity. The allocation of office space follows the functional silos and the hierarchy. Thus, those who have a similar function sit together in an open-plan office. The ways are therefore only short within the silo (or not as the above-mentioned studies showed).

However, the value creation is across the functional silos. Although the individual expert in his expert silo sits together with experts of the same profession, his work largely consists of interacting with colleagues in other silos. But they are sitting in their own office wing, in another building, at another location and, in the case of suppliers and partners, perhaps even in another company. So collaboration is always distributed anyway, and was so even before Corona. However, as a result of the pandemic and the widespread use of the home office, many people have realized that under this premise, permanent presence in the open-plan office brings little added value.

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