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  • Writer's pictureRobert Weidner

Open Space Design

Updated: Jan 30, 2019

Open space design can increase team member productivity, so long as work the team is focused on requires a high level of collaboration. If not, then the environment can be counter productive, due to the increased level of distraction resulting from interruptions and background noise. It is prohibitive to have teams co-located together, if the work they’re doing is disparate. Instead, team members should be co-located with members of their own team, but separated from other teams, to ensure the osmotic communications they are exposed to are relevant to the effort at hand. There are a few key concepts and considerations to keep in mind when moving to an open space design. The first concept we will look at is team size.

Communication channels

Ideal team size is often denoted as 7 plus or minus 2 (i.e., 5 to 9 people per team), though teams of 3 to 9 have proven effective. This recommendation has to do with the exponential increase in the number of communication channels for each additional team member. Understanding the impact of this is essential.

Six people produce 15 communication channels, as is confirmed by this formula: 6 x (6-1) ÷ 2 = 15. If there were 17 people, the formula would be applied as: 17 x (17-1) ÷ 2 = 136. The communication web grows exponentially, and becomes more entangled, as additional team members are added.

Formula: N(N-1)/2

  • 1(1-1)/2 = 0

  • 2(2-1)/2 = 1

  • 3(3-1)/2 = 3

  • 4(4-1)/2 = 6

  • 5(5-1)/2 = 10

  • 6(6-1)/2 = 15

  • 7(7-1)/2 = 21

  • 8(8-1)/2 = 28

  • 9(9-1)/2 = 36

N > 36 channels = Communication breakdowns

Research has shown that communication breakdowns inevitably start to occur as the number of team members expands. As it so happens, 9 team members (which equals 36 communication channels) is the first critical point where communication breakdowns begin to occur (i.e., it is simply not possible for people to effectively communicate across 36 separate channels in a meaningful way). Thus teams actually become less efficient as team size grows. Large team sizes therefore become the antithesis to a lean, Agile approach. As team sizes get larger, the left hand no longer knows what the right hand is doing. While two heads may be better than one, 10 heads are not able to synchronize their efforts.

Open, collaborative space design

DuPont pioneered the open, collaborative space design during the 1950s. After experimenting with this open office concept for some time, they chose to abandon it, having noted no verifiable increase in productivity. Since then, other businesses have adopted the model, and it has become particularly common in the software development industry.

The large body of research that has since been conducted on the topic has generally been mixed, though recent studies have concluded that the open space design results in:

  • A decrease in employee satisfaction (i.e., morale)

  • A decrease in productivity

The research article "Traditional Versus Open Office Design" (Brennan, Chugh, Kline, 2002) took the following factors into consideration:

  • Physical environment (e.g., amount of storage space, work surface area)

  • Physical stressors (e.g., lighting levels, noise)

  • Team member relations (e.g., inclusion, approachability)

  • Performance (e.g., ability to focus, ability to stay on task)

  • Protocols (e.g., had office protocols been established, were they followed?)

This study concluded that employees were significantly less satisfied with the physical environment of the open office design, and that their dissatisfaction remained constant over time (i.e., they did not grow to embrace the change). The results were similar for all additional measures.

However, another research article entitled "Employee Reactions to Office Redesign" (McElroy and Morrow, 2010) surmised that "office redesign is an effective strategy for implementing organizational change." This article looked at organizational behavior and methods for inducing behavior modification. It's important to understand the following: space = culture. Behavior is influenced and determined through space design.

An adaptable business model requires an adaptable space. According to Stewart Brand, author of the seminal architectural book How Buildings Learn (1995), "Age plus adaptivity is what makes a building come to be loved. The building learns from its occupants, and they learn from it." Christopher Alexander, professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, offers a similar point of view: "What does it take to make comfortable little modifications in a way that once you've made them, they feel integral with the nature and structure of what is already there? You want to be able to mess around with it and progressively change it to bring it into an adapted state."

Open space design offers increased flexibility (i.e., adaptability) and an effective strategy for implementing organizational change. However, it generally results in a decrease in employee morale, and productivity, and that decrease is sustained over time. There are some important factors to consider if efficiency is a key driver. While open space designs generally drive some positive behaviors, such as transparency, collaboration, responsiveness, adaptability, and collective ownership, they also introduce a myriad of distractions. A prominent feature of co-located spaces is the concept of osmotic communication. This is defined as "Communication which occurs as a result of people sitting in the environment. One team member overhearing two other team members conversing in the war room and thus becoming informed would be an example of osmotic communication." (Andy Crowe, PMI-ACP Exam, 2012)

Osmotic communication can be extremely beneficial, allowing a team member to join in the discussion when it relates to one of his or her knowledge areas or project interests. However, osmotic communication can also result in detrimental noise when it does not have any relevance to the team member. For this reason, many modern open-space advocates recommend co-locating the team, while simultaneously keeping them separate from other teams. Thus, you want team members that work closely together to be near one another, but you want separation from other teams and from other team members whose work does not closely align with their own.

The research article "Stress and Open-Office Noise" (Evans and Johnson, 2000) draws the conclusion that "open-office noise elevated workers' urinary epinephrine levels, but not their norepinephrine or cortisol levels, and it produced behavioral aftereffects (fewer attempts at unsolvable puzzles) indicative of motivational deficits. Participants were also less likely to make ergonomic, postural adjustments in their computer work station while working under noisy, relative to quiet, conditions. Postural invariance is a risk factor for musculoskeletal disorder." In the results section of the article, it is noted that workers in both the control group (traditional office space design) and experiment group (open office space design) reported feeling similar levels of stress at the end of a three-hour period, but those in the open office space had additional physiological signs that indicated elevated stress levels above that of their counterparts in the control group. The stress of the environment had a direct, measurable impact on them physically.

Context switching

The optimal number of tasks for each team member is no more than two in progress at a time (Clark and Wheelwright, 1993), which allows someone to switch over to another task if the first one should become blocked. As the number of tasks increases beyond two, the amount of time it takes to context switch is inversely proportionate to their level of productivity.

Thus, in an open space design, particularly with large team sizes, the amount of context switching that takes place due to interruptions (either from members of their own team or from other teams) results in a significant decrease in productivity. If the intent is to increase efficiency, then it will be necessary to limit these context switching disruptions, and thereby limit the number of concurrently assigned tasks each team member has. The more tasks a team member has, and the more projects they're involved in, the higher the rate of disruption (since more people will require their expertise). Large teams mean more disruptions (after all, you've got more communication channels to maintain!

Self-organizing behavior, distributed processing, and emergent design

Space design should grow organically. For a flexible, adaptive space that also promotes a shift in culture (i.e., induces changes in behavior), the focus should be on team-specific needs. What may appear efficient for management may not be ideal for the team, and vice versa. The team should be the primary concern: who they interact with, how they work together, and in what capacity. The goal is to promote self-organizing behavior, to let the teams reorganize to build in their own efficient work flows. This promotes collective ownership. It also contributes to producing a "culture of innovation." The whitepaper "Creating a Culture of Innovation" (Krieger, 2010) states the following:

Since the Industrial Revolution, there have been three main business innovations. The first was neoclassical economics to drive a supply-and-demand economy. The second occurred in the 1980s and 1990s when companies like Toyota, GE, and others used process improvement (Six Sigma, lean manufacturing) to drive profitability and growth.

In today’s marketplace, these models no longer provide the competitive advantage they once did. So the third major business model will be the driver of innovation moving forward. This model is behavioral economics.

Whether these three models were product driven, knowledge driven, or innovation driven, one thing remains constant: They all need people and managers. To execute, you must choose to use people as allies rather than adversaries. Behavioral economics is the science that allows this to occur. There are three mechanisms or levers that an organization can pull to drive innovation using behavioral economic principles. They are culture measurements, capability assessments, and selection of the idea catalysts (the organization's people).

An organization's most valuable asset is its people. Create an environment that will attract the live hearts and the live minds.

Therefore, space design isn't just about making people more efficient; it's also about attracting and retaining high-quality talent, by creating an environment conducive to the way they want to work. The environment should be collaborative, with autonomy and accountability, in equal measure.

The design should grow bottom-up, not top-down. To quote Abraham Lincoln, "by the people, for the people." Avoid the pitfalls of open space design that can produce a reduction in both productivity and morale. Create an adaptable space. To drive efficiency using space design (which should augment the company’s overall process), focus on smaller team sizes and at least some team segregation. "Mega pods," or "mega teams," have not proven to be an effective method for increasing productivity.

In the research article "Individual Flexibility and Spatiality" (Värlander, 2011), the conclusion states, "This article sheds light on how space shapes and is being shaped by its incumbents." In addition, "for practitioners, the findings of this study underscore that an awareness of the unintended and emergent consequences of spatial design is imperative in order not to have naïve expectations on the influence of spatial layouts. Spatial design can be an efficient tool in implementing change, but there is a need for awareness of the unpredictability of spatial design, and simplistic views of openness as unequivocally leading to flexibility, innovation, and other favorable or desirable organizational outcomes need to be challenged."

There needs to be an initial design that will promote adoption (i.e., team members to buy-in to the open design concept) so that collective ownership becomes an ingrained principle, and people begin to self-organize and adapt to their surroundings rather than protest them. This is what will drive efficiency in a sustainable, innovative way.

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