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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