Experimenting with workspace

What happens when 21 people volunteer to take part in a live workplace experiment? An experiment that tests what factors govern the choices people will make when asked to find a work setting for a collaborative team task?

A couple of weeks ago we embarked on what was in itself an experimental formula: a kind of mash up of a spatial theory seminar, interactive workshop and live experiment, with some data collection.

Our ‘lab rats’ gamely volunteered themselves for this process; professionals from a range of backgrounds though mainly from workplace design and Facilities Management. Our laboratory was kindly provided by Herman Miller, in the shape of their newly fitted out showroom in Aldwych, London. This meant we had a range of furniture types and spatial locations to play with.

When we at brainybirdz first discussed the idea and then went on to design the ‘experiment’, it soon emerged that there was so much potential in the format, that it could easily take a day to run. But we only had 1 ½ hours at our disposal. With that caveat, we think we have nevertheless gained some significant insight from the event. And luckily our participants seemed also to find their own insights, which was an important objective too.

Our main finding was perhaps a surprising one. The participants were allowed to choose a workplace setting for a collaborative team task having first explored the showroom. We had expected there to be convergence around maybe two or three favoured locations, but with 10 teams, 8 favourites were identified. Then, when the teams were asked to go and occupy a work setting to actually complete the task, only 4 teams ended up in the location they originally chose.

Based on the feedback we received and our own previous research, it appears several inter-related factors were at work in these divergent choices. These were:

  • Spatial visibility
  • Daylight
  • Furniture
  • Personality type
  • Team dynamics
  • Perception of the task

Spatial visibility is a way of describing the spatial quality of any location within a complex floorplan in terms of how visible it is to everywhere else. We use a software tool to measure this, but broadly speaking an central open space with good lines of sight will show up with high visibility and an enclosed space in a tucked way in a corner somewhere will have low visibility or be secluded. In our experiment, four of the favourite work settings identified were in visible locations and six in secluded locations. Even though several teams ended up in a different location to the one originally chosen, team preferences for seclusion or visibility did not change, meaning for example that a team unable to work from their first choice secluded location then found themselves an alternative secluded setting. One team who chose and remained in a visible location, admitted that they had benefitted from seeing what other teams were doing in the collaborative task. Teams who chose to be more segregated mentioned the need for uninterrupted focus on the task.

HM syntax visibility

Space syntax representation of visibility

Daylight was a factor specifically mentioned by some teams. One team that wanted a secluded spot managed to find one that also gave them access to daylight, which they reported was important to them. Three of the teams in visible locations within the showroom were also close to the window and two of them explicitly mentioned light as being a factor in their choice and the other team mentioned light as an important quality of their location.


Secluded and with daylight: one of the favoured team task locations

Furniture had an impact in a number of ways.

Comfort was the most often mentioned factor (9 out of 10 teams). People said they were comfortable in a number of different settings not just in upholstered sofas or chairs.

The way the furniture was positioned to allow those, in the mainly two person teams, to communicate and look at the same materials together was also mentioned as was having a large enough table top both to write on and to put down cups of coffee etc.. Capacity was also an issue – one team reported that they ruled out some locations because they seemed to big for just two people and clearly one-person settings were not chosen.

However adaptability was the other most significant factor after comfort. For one team this meant being able to sit or stand, but interestingly, more generally there were several references made to liking the possibility of changing the environment around, depending on what it would turn out was needed.

2017-06-30 12.50.22 copy

A work-setting that afforded space for writing during the team task

Personality type was not a factor we explicitly investigated. But it became evident from the comments that some made, that the choices around secluded and visible locations might well have something to do with introverted and extroverted personality types. This has been researched to some degree elsewhere and is a line of investigation that we think needs more attention.

Team dynamics can perhaps be seen as an extension to the ideas on personality type. In our experiment the teams of two, and in one case three people, were constituted on the day between participants who didn’t previously know each other. Some reported that they chose their favourite location because both team members had previously liked it. Others may have made choices because there was one, more dominant team member, whose preferences held sway. If the task had been an individual one, then people’s choices would have been totally individual and the resulting occupancy pattern maybe very different. Something else to investigate further.

Perception of the task was also crucial when it came to location choices. The original briefing was simply that participants should choose a favourite work setting where they could do a collaborative team task. When participants were asked to go and occupy a setting for the task, they were given more information and had a better idea of what might be involved. This may have contributed to the 6 out of 10 changes in where teams ended up compared to the favourite they had previously identified. It was not just that the spots they wanted were already taken. 

Experiment wordcloud

Frequency of adjectives mentioned to describe the settings used for the collaborative team task

So in what was admittedly a small scale experiment, it seems clear that the interplay of all these factors set against the pool of what work settings are actually available will lead to divergent outcomes. This means there is no such thing as the perfect work setting for everyone, even if the task is specified. Adaptability and choice has to be key with an underpinning of comfort for all. Although this is a mantra often heard in workplace design, we now have some real evidence to back it up and, as is always the case in science, we have a lot of new questions that still need further investigation. Watch this space.

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