Seeing and being seen: Visibility, intimacy and control in open plan workplace design

Last year in “Is open plan the collaboration magic bullet?” we blogged about the spatial effects on collaboration of an organisation that moved into a single floor open plan workspace from a highly partitioned office accommodated on two floors. Over the last few months we have delved a bit deeper into the evidence and have recently presented our findings at the European Social Networks conference EUSN17, an academic symposium hosted by The Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.

A quick recap. The organisation in question appeared to suffer a noticeable decrease in interactions both within and across departments after they moved to an open plan environment. The opposite of conventional wisdom. We hypothesised about a range of spatial phenomena that might have been at play. For example, we suggested that a 26% decrease in communication within one department in our case study, might be to do with a loss of “intimacy”. In the old office, this department occupied its own enclosed space which was segregated from the rest of the organisation (perhaps allowing communication within the department to flourish), in the new office, this department was in a very open location close to the social hub.

So we decided to take a closer and more scientific look at ‘intimacy’ in workplace settings. We measured this as the size of the 180° visual field from each workstation: if you don’t see very much from your desk, your degree of intimacy is high. We found that there was indeed a significant correlation between intimacy and interaction frequency, but only in the partitioned workspace. In the open plan workspace there was no measurable effect at all. The visibility fields were, as you would expect, much greater on average in the open plan space – intimacy was completely lost. So in the partitioned workplace people communicated less frequently with others face-to-face when their visual fields were large (and hence intimacy low).


In a highly partitioned layout, the less intimate the space the less interaction there was within each department. The same relationship was found with interaction outside departments.

However, we did find that there was another spatial visibility effect at work in open plan space and that was about ‘control’. Control is the phenomenon that is behind our choices of where to sit (which is the topic of another one of our blog posts). That is, we are more likely to seek out a location where we can see what is happening in front of us but cannot be seen by others from behind – we are in ‘control’ of the situation. We measured this as the ratio of the sizes of two different visual fields or isovists: the area of the 180° visual field as a representation of what a person can see from their desk divided by the area of the 360° visual field, which represents the areas from which that person can be seen. The higher this ratio is, the more a person is in control of their immediate surroundings.

Example of one desk with medium levels of control: 180° visual field versus 360° visual field

In the new open plan space we found a direct correlation between control and interaction frequency within departments: the more in control, the more face-to-face communication occurred. Control did not seem to be related to interaction with other departments and was not a significant factor for any type of interaction in the previous partitioned workspace.

In an open plan layout, the higher the visual ‘control’ of the surrounding space the more interaction there was within each department.


It seems as if in open plan space, when intimacy is low everywhere, there are no measurable effects of relative intimacy to be found on interaction patterns. Instead control starts to make a difference. Perhaps control is the next best thing when visibility and openness is ubiquitous and no intimacy can be found.

Of course these findings are based on one case study alone and we should not ignore the effects of culture on the needs for intimacy and control to support more interaction. Another organisation in the same open plan office layout might behave very differently. Nevertheless what we do have is definitive evidence for how maximising visibility may in some cases produce the opposite effect when it comes to interaction and collaboration.

If you are interested in learning more about the effects of visibility in the workplace, our half day short course on 10 Nov 2017 ‘The Visibility Experience’ might be for you.



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