Together or apart: Solidarities, silos and seating plans

If we ask you ‘what is the function of a building?’, your answer might well include ‘to give shelter’, or ‘to provide space for certain activities’. Indeed you might well say it depends on the type of building; a factory is there to manufacture products, a school allows children to learn. And of course you’d be right about all of these functions. But stop to consider a more fundamental function that all buildings possess. A social function first posited by Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson in their seminal book ‘The Social Logic of Space‘. That is, that all buildings can either bring people together or keep them apart.

When we think of workspaces, we mainly have the function of bringing people together in mind: we talk about the office as a place where people bump into others; we think of collaboration and knowledge exchange and working together; we might even go as far as to suggest that the main rationale for office space is for people to ‘feel less lonely’, as a recent analysis of co-working spaces suggested. Even critiques of the dreaded open-plan office focus on the presence of others (which is then often perceived as a nuisance).

What is not so much talked about, however, is how exactly togetherness is orchestrated. Who are you together with? Who do you meet most often? And what effect does that have on the organisation as a whole and the way work is organised?

There is of course a simple way togetherness is organised in offices: through a seating plan. Apart from recent trends of ‘activity-based working’, where employees choose a different location in the office based on their task at hand (although that is often still based around team zones), your workplace tells you where to be: at your desk. Once you are assigned a desk, we also know that you spend 44% of your time (on average) at that desk. Research has also established something else: who you talk to most often. Maybe unsurprisingly, physical proximity governs the majority of face-to-face contacts, since the most frequent everyday encounters happen within a range of 10-22 metres from your own workstation. This means seating plans are incredibly powerful tools, as they will foster relationships with other people seated close to you. This is what in research terms we would call a ‘spatial solidarity’, i.e. a social bond induced and maintained by means of space.

Unfortunately, many organisations do not use the power of the seating plan strategically. Often department A will sit in this corner, department B over there and so on depending on availability of space and sometimes who shouts loudest. You may not have noticed, but something rather important has happened here: the organisational silo has emerged. But how so? By overlaying a second important rationale that drives day to day interaction on top of physical proximity: departmental affiliation. You are much more likely to interact with other colleagues in your own department because you often share goals, tasks, experience, disciplinary backgrounds and identities; and so sales people talk to sales people, developers talk to other developers, the creatives talk to other creatives and so on. This ‘silo mentality‘ is often quoted as a main reason why cross functional collaboration does not flourish in organisations which may result amongst other things in needless duplication, business process delay and missing potential business opportunities.

Let’s unpick in a bit more detail how space can contribute to silo mentality. We’ve already introduced proximity as a motivation for people to connect with one another. In addition to this spatial solidarity, we overlay a second layer of solidarity, that of departmental affiliation. In the research literature, this has also been called ‘transpatial solidarity’ (a solidarity able to overcome, or transcend spatial barriers), since it describes who we are and what brings us together (gender, age, background, job role, etc). When both of these solidarities, the spatial and transpatial overlap very tightly, we speak of a correspondence model. The left image below illustrates this with a grouping of blue and purple dots. Imagine blue and purple are two different departments and they are also grouped together spatially. This is what almost every typical seating plan looks like: sales in one corner, marketing in another, product development in yet another place, etc. The stronger the organisational divides are between departments and the larger the distances or spatial barriers (such as being on a different floor of the office), the more pronounced the silo effect is. The illustration on the right shows a non-correspondence model: people from different departments are mixed up in the same space.

Two models of overlapping solidarities: in correspondence or non-correspondence

Management scholar and author Tom Peters has already discussed this effect almost 30 years ago in his paper ‘Get Innovative or Get Dead’:

I’ve said many times, to the surprise of many people: physical location – in particular, jamming people from disparate functions together in the same room or workspace or cubby hole – is the number one culture change tool that I’ve discovered! Move the accountants to the manufacturing floor: within six weeks the accountants will appreciate the manufacturers, the manufacturers will appreciate the accountants. Put the designers, engineers, manufacturers, and marketers in one location working on a joint product development process: something close to a miracle will invariably occur.” (Tom Peters, 1990: page 23-24)

But why is it that this insight still has not made its way into common practice? We can only speculate. Certainly many organisations value teamwork within departments and proximity enables just that. It might be that it is the most straightforward solution and mixing up people would require additional efforts and might mean overcoming barriers and resistance to change. It might be that organisations are only just beginning to realise the impact space can make on the way their business is run. Space planners might not have understood quite how strategically important seating plans can be.

If anyone needs further convincing of the virtues of mixing people of different departments up and distributing them among space, we can only suggest to visit the headquarters of juice and smoothie producers Innocent. In their office in Ladbroke Grove, Innocent have done just that: people belonging to a department sit dotted around the various floors of the office. Their next desk neighbours are mostly from different departments and so organisational cohesion, trust and knowledge is spread throughout the business. Curious to see this in action? Luckily, anyone can visit Innocent. They do extend an invite to anyone who wants to come, and print this invite handily on each bottle of juice or smoothie they produce. And they mean it, as described in this blog post of someone who took them up on their offer.

What can we learn from this? We would argue that spatial layouts matter in enabling connections between people. Who sits next to whom will drive the frequency of day to day encounters. This can be put to good use to foster relationships between those who might normally not meet each other. It is astonishing to think that Tom Peters suggested this almost 30 years ago and very little has changed in the way that seating arrangements work. So the next time someone tells you they want to break down organisational silos and increase cross-functional collaboration, ask them whether they have considered the functional power of their office building and whether they could change their workplace seating plan.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s