Is open-plan the collaboration magic bullet? Measuring the effects of office design on how organisations behave.

The need for more collaboration within organisations seems to have become something of a mantra. And the office design industry is busy trying to capitalise on that need, by offering new and exciting ‘flexible’, ‘open’ office layouts that will help to break down entrenched organisational barriers and enable greater knowledge sharing.

If you know us at all, you will also know that we don’t take these assumptions as a given, without the evidence to back it up. However there are two big problems proving that office design makes any difference at all to the way organisations behave. The first one is how do you effectively measure organisational behaviour? The second, is if the office design has changed, how can you quantify what exactly it is that has had an impact, either positively or negatively? Is it the colour of the walls, the new social hub, or the open plan workstations and breakout spaces or some combination of all of that? So two very big problems if you want to find actual proof.

Recently we have been fortunate enough to get our hands on two sets of data about one organisation, of around 250 people, before and after an office relocation and radical re-design. They moved from a cellularised two floor single tenanted building to a single floor, open-plan, multi-tenanted building. This is an organisation which had improving collaboration between key departments as one of its main objectives. Departments had fixed locations, with staff having assigned desks, both before and after the move.

Last month we took the preliminary results of our analysis and presented them to the European Social Networks Conference in Paris (EUSN16). This is an academic conference dedicated to all forms of social and organisational network analysis. For the uninitiated, this is a technique which is being used in fields of research ranging from unpicking the mechanisms behind the spread of political influence to how economic development is linked to the social networks of entrepreneurs. And we, almost uniquely, have been using this technique to be the ‘measure’ of effective collaboration and cohesiveness within businesses and then relating this to the changes in physical attributes of a given office design. We have been using the more established, yet relatively unknown, techniques of ‘space syntax’ analysis to give us the quantifiable data we need to describe the change in office layout that occurred in this case. In effect we have quantifiable data on the two big problems: collaboration and office design, and importantly we can look at the two together.

And the results? For people who profess to hate ‘open-plan’ space they will be pleased to hear that on our evidence, open-plan is not a collaboration magic bullet. It is a much more complex picture.

In a nutshell, the new office provided much higher levels of spatial integration, which means shorter paths through the office (and thus higher levels of proximity), which in theory should make it easier to see and interact with others.


Space syntax analysis can quantify changes in office design

However, the average number of ties in daily face-to-face interaction decreased by around 6%, which means on average every member of staff in the new office talked to 7 of their colleagues on a day to day basis rather than 7.5. This is not a massive effect, but it provides first pointers to what is going on.

Delving deeper into the analysis identified two different interesting effects: firstly, departments who were no longer next to each other, lost a disproportionately high number of connections (in one example, staff in one department spoke on average with 0.7 people from another adjacent department in the old office space, yet only with 0.1 people in the new space where those two departments were placed further apart, thus reducing connections between the two departments by 85%). Secondly, we found that in the case of another department, the number of people within the same department any member of staff would speak to on a daily basis, shrank from 8.2 to 6.1 (which is a decrease of 26%). This may be explained by a loss of intimacy in their workspace: while in the old office, this department occupied its own enclosed space which was segregated from the rest of the organisation (allowing communication within the department to flourish), in the new office, this department was placed in a very open and central location close to the social hub (which was rather noisy and anecdotally was reported to have had a constraining effect on the communication patterns of people working near it, because they felt they ‘might be overheard by people from other departments’. This of course may say more about a culture of distrust within the organisation, but if so, not one that was seemingly overcome by an office redesign).


Using organisational network analysis as a tool to measure collaboration

More analysis is required, but crucially we have now established quantitative methods we can use to check up on how well office designs are really serving the people who have to work in them. We like solving these kind of problems!

Ros Pomeroy and Dr Kerstin Sailer, July 2016




One thought on “Is open-plan the collaboration magic bullet? Measuring the effects of office design on how organisations behave.

  1. Pingback: Seeing and being seen: Visibility, intimacy and control in open plan workplace design | brainybirdz

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