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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