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Old March 30th, 2014 #1
Alex Linder
Join Date: Nov 2003
Posts: 45,382
Blog Entries: 34
Alex Linder
Default #1 Office or Workspace Thread

Mar 28, 2014

Why the Best Offices Are Like Jails


Cubicles, cells: more alike than you think.

Kristine Woolsey would like to make your office more like a jail. And she has a particular jail in mind.

An architect by training, then a professor at Arizona State University, and now a business strategy consultant, Woolsey studies the impact of the physical environment on human behavior. In her consulting work, she helps companies figure out how they can transform their workspaces in a way that will help them meet their goals, whatever those may be.

Because of her academic background, Woolsey taps unexpected research findings to inform her work with clients—everything from research on the organization of an Abu Dhabi farm community to the infrastructure of refugee camps.

Which brings us to the jail thing.

Numerous anthropological studies show that group size—the number of individuals who live or work together—is key to peaceful collaboration in all kinds of environments. The ideal group size for forming bonds of trust is around six to eight people, Woolsey said.

A gang of four can be easily dominated by one strong personality; any larger than eight, and they’ll to need to elect a leader. But right in the middle, there’s “a sort of peer pressure in terms of expected social behavior” that leads people to act in the common interest, she said.

Effective open-plan offices, such as the ones Google Inc. has designed in Zurich and Dublin, and the ones offered by NextSpace, a California-based company that rents workspaces to freelancers and small businesses, place employees in hubs of six to eight, with nearby common areas accessible to several groups, Woolsey said. Thus, rather than dividing up a giant workforce into “acres of gray cubes,” the office is instead comprised of small groups nested within larger ones.

Designers of the Falkenburg Road Jail in Tampa, Florida, had the same idea. That facility, completed in 2004, houses inmates in dormitories of four to eight beds each, with half-walls linking groups. That’s ideal, Woolsey said—a small, personal group, but connected to a larger community.

Tim Gibson, a principal in the architecture firm DLR Group, helped design the jail. While he’s careful to note that its design is as much a product of security and efficiency concerns as behavioral ones, he acknowledged that, “in terms of behavior, an eight-man cell actually functions pretty well.”

The jail, widely cited as a progressively-designed facility, has a low incidence of violent behavior, attributed in part to the small groups. Eight is also about the maximum size of a collaborative team of architects at DLR headquarters, according to Gibson; the theory seems to be hitting on something.

Jeremy Neuner, the CEO of NextSpace, said he’s observed that workers naturally congregate in groups of six to eight. Recently at the company’s Santa Cruz headquarters, as a sort of experiment, a 12-seat conference table was moved into an open area of the office. Sure enough, Neuner said, six to eight people gathered there to work.

“Except when they’re up against a deadline, people are not looking for their own closed-in spaces,” Neuner said.

As Woolsey sees it, the traditional open-plan office is no better at adapting to the way people work than the old cubicle-dotted office. Engineering effective group sizes is one way to approach the problem, but the key for any company is to tailor spaces to specific personalities and business objectives.

“Human behavior is really hard to change,” she said. “So, my whole shtick is that if I can get halfway there in the facility design, why not?”

#1, office, workspace


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