The Knowledge Workplace: Designing for Interaction

May 1, 2004
I&S Continuing Education Series
The Knowledge Workplace: Designing for InteractionTeaming. Collaboration. Do we use these words way too liberall? "Teaming" now seems to describe everything from running into each other in the hall to conferring with a workstation neighbor to the more traditional meeting in a conference room. "Collaboration" appears to denote everything that's not done alone. We also seem to fall prey to the sweeping generalization that more teaming or collaboration is inherently better than less. That everyone either is or should be doing it....Learning OutcomesInteriors & Sources Continuing Education Series articles allow design practitioners to earn continuing education unit credits through the pages of the magazine. Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this issue's article. To receive credit, see the series of questions and follow the instructions.Why should we care? Bandying these words about as catch-alls for every interaction with other people precludes us from using them as precise terms that lead to more precise responses as we design spaces to support group activities. When pressed, can we clearly define what specific behaviors or activities we really mean to describe, let alone how best to support those behaviors or activities with physical space? My fear is that we may fall back on intuition and what we've seen others do, and hope that "if we build it they will come."We put groups of soft seating in extra wide corridors or tack on half-round tables at the ends of workstations without a clear understanding of exactly how people will use these spaces. If we are to provide workspaces that truly support what are deemed appropriate activities, we need to understand more about collaboration and teams—and to recognize the huge variety in behaviors we're actually hoping to support, the context in which they operate, and the role the physical environment plays in supporting each of them (or not).BACKGROUNDHistorically, the white-collar office has reflected the mechanistic mindset of the factory, with work designed to pass from person to person and department to department as a linear series of individual tasks were performed. The physical environment of the office echoed this view with efficiently arranged rows of individual offices or open plan, or (most likely) some combination of the two, along with some proportion of large, medium and small conference rooms. As flatter organizational structures became more desirable, thanks to Tom Peters and other management gurus, we seemed to simplify their advice to "interaction"—and lots of it—as the panacea for all that ailed American business. Doing work in teams would lead to faster-to-market, more creativity, higher quality and more productive employees.1Don't get me wrong—I agree; but as with most business bandwagons, teaming can be misunderstood and misapplied, especially if we jump right to a physical solution without understanding the nature of the work being done, or the dynamics of teams or work groups. We also need to understand the larger context in which this is occurring—what behaviors will be consistent or inconsistent with the culture of the organization 2, or exactly how this collaboration or interaction is beneficial to the organization or the individual.
If we take a step back, what we see inside many organizations is a shift toward acknowledging the purpose and value of many forms of social behaviors that go beyond what we might define as working collaboratively. There is a lot of research that identifies the value of not just allowing, but cultivating social behaviors at work to build rapport and trust, share knowledge, support self-expression, and create a sense of community. A 2001 joint research project between MIT and The Gartner Group made the following point in its summary document: "People connecting with other people through common purpose, peers, goals and interests . . . creates belonging, trust, passion, learning and relationships — all of which fuel performance, motivation and ingenuity. Community gains momentum in the knowledge workplace as people gravitate toward work, ideas and informal groups that enrich them intellectually, hasten their learning, keep them sharp and keep them informed. Equally important, many people will feel a greater commitment to their social and knowledge communities than they will to their organizational manager or even their employers."3The report goes on to say "Formal and informal knowledge and social networks form the foundation of the New Synergy, and they become the primary building blocks in designing a workplace that supports different types of knowledge work."4Others have weighed in on the same topic and echoed much the same theme: Social capital makes organizations work (Hewitt Associates, 2001). According to the LaJolla Institute, the benefits of collaboration can include reduced costs (savings in space, healthcare, personnel and other overhead), and improvements in morale, teamwork, employee recruitment and retention and shortened cycle times. Judith Heerwagen, a highly respected researcher and environmental psychologist, reinforces this view of teaming and collaboration as only one aspect of what she calls "the social nature of work."As part of her work heading up the research component of the General Services Administration's (GSA) new Workplace 2020 Program under the leadership of Kevin Kampschroer5, Heerwagen developed an internal paper, "The Social Context of Knowledge Work"6, that first identified the larger picture into which group work fits and, even more importantly, summarized the body of research that "shows that the features and attributes of space can influence many outcomes of value to the organization today, including communications processes, trust, cognitive functioning, psychological well being and productivity. Central to all of these social processes is the notion that physical space regulates the flow of information upon which all interpersonal behavior depends. The physical environment allows us, or inhibits us, from seeing, hearing and interacting with others. It does this through the differential use of doors and other openings, corners, surfaces, illumination, circulation paths, furnishings, boundaries, distances and artifacts. Together these architectural features act to Concentrate, diffuse, segregate or localize information."What follows is a summary of Heerwagen's synopsis of the range of social behaviors she feels are relevant to workplace design . . . and what we tend to lump together as "teaming."Workspace Awareness—this is the sense of knowing what is happening in the immediately surrounding space, such as others' locations, activities and intentions. Opportunistic Interactions—these are brief (usually 15 minutes or less) intentional or unintentional conversations in which people engage many times over the work day to ask questions, check facts, discuss ideas, get rapid feedback, pass on information, give help.
Group Work
—group work involves more intense, higher-level interaction including development of ideas, problem solving, coordination, debate, evaluating ideas and solutions. Meetings vary widely in terms of the type and size of the group, the purpose, the degree of formality, the support tools and technologies used for interaction, the degree of spontaneity and whether the group is constant or varied over time.
Relationship Development
—friendships and close work relationships develop as a consequence of the above social processes, plus having opportunities to talk privately and disclose information about feelings, concerns and values. Disclosure and confidentiality are especially important to the development of affective bonds and emotional trust. Privacy—privacy serves several important psychosocial needs, including contemplation, self-evaluation, rejuvenation, creativity, recovery from stress and intimacy.Summarizing the research she compiled, Heerwagen also describes the links and implications of each type of social behavior to the physical environment. What follows is paraphrased from her material and augmented by a couple of examples. As you read through each topic, you'll notice common themes and the ever-present trade-offs between the benefits of access and privacy.
Of the factors that contribute to awareness, visible activity is considered to be the most important and is highest when workers are located in the same space with little or no obstruction between them. The use of interior glazing and windows for visual access into surrounding spaces and circulation paths that maximize the potential for contact among individuals also contribute. Also, workers intuitively use physical traces, such as workspace lights, computers, clothing, food and odors to tell whether colleagues are at work, even if they are not at their desks at a given time.Easily seeing each other allows for interaction, coordinated action and a shared understanding of context, but should be moderated depending on the nature of work. For instance, work teams with a high degree of interdependence and a complex task may benefit more from high awareness than others. One approach could be to use shared team rooms where members can easily see what others are doing and keep track of group and individual activities. Air traffic controllers may be one of the best and most extreme examples of needing this situational awareness to do their jobs. In one location studied by MIT, the controllers relied on a system of simple slips of paper and a host of visual and auditory clues to keep track of enormous amounts of constantly changing data for the planes they each monitored and those for whom their colleagues had responsibility.7OPPORTUNISTIC INTERACTIONSMost informal interactions last less than 10 minutes. Most occur in individual workspaces, contrary to the long-standing belief that spontaneous interactions occur at natural meeting spaces like hallways, break rooms or copy centers as people move about the work environment. Physical features can influence the extent to which informal interactions occur in workspaces or elsewhere in the office, such as: the physical proximity of workstations to one another or the collocation of a team; the complexity and arrangement of the overall circulation system; overall visibility (into and from individual workstations, other surrounding spaces and down corridors); and the location of natural attractors, such as support services and coffee nooks. Unfortunately, informal interactions also increase the potential for distractions and interruptions, the impact of which depends on task complexity. Noise from people talking is more detrimental to complex tasks than to simple tasks, since it interferes with comprehension, working memory and internal conceptual processing and may also impede the cognitive "flow" state that aids some kinds of work, especially writing and programming. The research summarized above suggests that designing for opportunistic interactions must consider the nature of the work, as well as the issue of "time." Research on teamwork shows that interaction needs vary over the course of a project, with higher levels of interaction common at the beginning for planning, during midcourse for coordination and problem solving, and at the end of the project for pulling together results, preparing reports and doing demonstrations. Many companies have created small, enclosed spaces for private conversations and concentration to address the trade-offs between access and privacy. Such spaces work best when they are sufficiently soundproof to allow for confidentiality or concentration, when workers are equipped with the technological tools that enable mobility, and when the materials they might need while they work or meet in those spaces are also highly portable (like electronic versus paper-based). Sabre's new campus in Southlake, TX, incorporated many of the aspects discussed above and below; and in particular, they believe that what Heerwagen calls "workspace awareness" and "opportunistic interaction" have provided considerable tangible benefits for them. In their old space, many of their engineers were paired in enclosed offices. In the new space, a work group and its immediate manager are collocated in individual open workstations. While they have not developed or applied hard metrics to measure "before" and "after," they feel strongly that the anecdotal evidence makes a compelling case for this change. They are convinced that a greater number of projects are completed in less time and at a higher level of quality because of the quantity and quality of interactions facilitated by their new workplace.GROUP WORKResearch on the link between teamwork and the physical environment has looked at the influence of boundaries, collocation of team members, seating arrangements that influence discussion, the use of informal team spaces and the use of artifacts and surfaces to display concepts and activities. Boundaries are physical features that determine the degree of access and flow of information between one space and another. When used to enclose work groups, boundaries promote a high degree of internal focus, which influences the sense of camaraderie, group norms and work processes. If boundaries are too rigid or extreme, there is a risk that groups become isolated and lose touch with the rest of the organization. Collocation of team members in one space—be it a cluster of workstations or assembled in the same large room—may also increase work efficiency and overall productivity. One group of researchers found that software engineers working together in the same room were able to better coordinate their activities and work together spontaneously than teams in traditional settings with private workspaces and conference rooms. The researchers concluded that the ability to monitor activities and conversations promoted rapid problem solving and also enabled the groups to meet spontaneously when full discussions were needed. The collocated teams also used the surfaces in their team rooms to increase overall project awareness by posting project deadlines, "to do" lists, activities, questions, information sources, ideas and assignments. Many new office designs include informal group spaces—provisioned with lounge chairs and white boards, for example, and in open areas or interspersed among workstations—intended to encourage spontaneous meetings and group interactions. Despite the care given to the design of these spaces, they are often underutilized and reinforce the need to thoroughly understand the activities they are intended to support. Another researcher identified several fundamental errors in the design of informal group spaces in a large software company. Using the spaces generated high levels of noise, which was distracting to nearby workers. The spaces lacked computer workstations or phones to access databases or draw in other colleagues spontaneously. Most of the work was actually solitary, not team based, and communications were largely via e-mail; also, the work was often highly confidential and so could not be discussed in open areas. Finally, many of the staff were not located nearby, so their meetings often needed to be planned, rather than happening spontaneously. RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENTRelationships grow when people share interests, values and concerns. There are ways in which workplace design can enhance relationship development in each of its three stages: awareness, meeting and greeting behaviors, and mutuality."Awareness" simply has to do with knowing who is present and generally what they are up to, without the need for interaction. "Meeting and greeting" behaviors involve superficial contact, typically in open or public areas such as the mail room, copy center or coffee bar, or even the doorway of a colleague's office. One researcher suggests that these sorts of spaces are conducive to casual encounters because people don't have to commit to an extended conversation; they can move on quickly and go about their business without seeming rude. These encounters don't constitute relationships, but people do gain knowledge from them on which relationships are built. "Mutuality" involves disclosure of personal and confidential information about one's values, beliefs, concerns, problems and so forth. Sharing interests and knowledge helps build trust, which is vital to successful teamwork. Without trust and understanding, work groups become dysfunctional. Trust also helps people understand and accept each other's roles and is necessary to working as a team even when physically separated. Mutual disclosure is more likely to occur when people work together for extended periods and in private spaces where they can talk without being overheard.
There are different ways to allow for privacy. Enclosure is the obvious one, but density management, distance, layout and location are other factors. Locating workers away from main traffic corridors and expanding the distance between workstations also enhances privacy.Privacy isn't easy to achieve in open plan offices, especially when other design goals include smaller, more densely-packed workstations and lower partitions used to expose workers to windows and sunlight. Including small, enclosed spaces for private work or phone calls gives people the confidentiality they occasionally need, but doesn't provide for the other benefits of privacy such as restoration and recovery, contemplation and creative work. Many clients today are interested in designing workspaces to facilitate teaming or collaboration—often without a clear understanding of what those terms mean or what they really need. We can serve those clients well first by helping them define those terms in specific ways that help them understand their true objectives: what behaviors they wish to support or maintain within the context of their company's culture and how the physical environment can best support those behaviors.1 The general shift to flatter organizations and more teaming has closely followed the move to cellular manufacturing and/or self-determined teams on the factory floor.

2 See "Workplace Design and Organizational Culture, Part 3", January/February 2003, Interiors & Sources, for a brief primer on understanding corporate cultures.

3 MIT/Gartner, "The Agile Workplace: A Research Partnership between Gartner, MIT and 22 Industry Sponsors," 2001. Section 3-5, page 19.

4 Ibid, Section 3-6, page 21.

5 Kevin Kampschroer and his work on GSA's 20
20 Program is profiled in Interiors & Sources in the April 2003 issue. Judith Heerwagen is profiled in the June 2002 issue of Interiors & Sources.

6 Heerwagen's paper was developed while she consulted with the Carnegie Mellon University/GSA Workplace Productivity Group—a collaboration between the Center for Building Performance at Carnegie Mellon University and GSA—and was presented to the team as a review draft in late 2002.
7 Kukla, Charles; Porter, William; Millet, Kim; "Paper Airplanes—The work of Air Traffic Controllers"; internal technical report for Gartner/MIT consortium, 2001.

Jan Johnson is Teknion's Director of Workplace Learning, serving as a resource to both Teknion and external organizations. She works with current and prospective customers to examine the influence of changing work trends in the business environment and apply the most pertinent data from within and outside the industry.

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