How space shapes the context for what we do and how we do it

Why do we expect to see waiting rooms in hospitals but not in shopping malls? How come lawyers work in private offices but software engineers, who require just as much focus and concentration, hang out in open offices with ping-pong tables?

The design of the many different kinds of space in which we live, work and play has a profound effect on how people interact. Sometimes the effect is quite subtle, and sometimes it more obvious, but in all cases, space shapes the context for what we do and how we do it, even though its effect is frequently taken for granted.

A great deal of attention is being paid these days to promoting communication, collaboration, and teamwork in the workplace. This is because it has become increasingly clear that “teamwork trumps talent.” Yesterday’s paradigm centered around the genius in the attic, working in isolation and coming up with occasional flashes of brilliant insight. A romantic notion, to be sure, but mostly fictitious. Today it is understood that group problem solving is extremely powerful — that none of us is as smart as all of us — and that coming up with great ideas benefits greatly from incorporating many diverse points of view.

Add to this the effect of technology, which both connects and isolates people at the same time. While the internet provides instant access to virtually unlimited information, the temptation to dive into cyberspace at the expense of engaging in direct personal contact can be overwhelming. Subways, restaurants, research laboratories, classrooms, and even formal meetings are full of people who are glued to their smartphones instead of paying attention to what’s going on around them. Design can help counteract that tendency.

These factors have led to a new appreciation of how offices, schools, hospitals, and even coffee shops should be configured for maximum productivity. With this in mind, here are a few organizing principles for how design can be used to enhance collaboration and connectivity.

Set the stage with circulation

Pay attention to how people actually move through space. Make sure that the primary paths of travel are simple, direct, and efficient. Keep travel distances to a minimum. Concentrate elevators and stairs in central, easy-to-find locations, and keep the number to a minimum to encourage maximum utilization. Provide ample natural light and views to the outside so that people are easily oriented at any given time. Where possible, create views to adjacent floors (both above and below), which will invite people to use stairs rather than elevators. Wayfinding should be intuitive, without relying on specialized signage (a particular problem in hospitals).

Create interaction nodes

These are the areas that are used in common by all occupants at various times during the day. In addition to corridors, stairs, and elevators, examples include reception desks and lobbies, casual seating areas, cafes or coffee stations, conference rooms, common storage areas, coat rooms, copy centers, water fountains and vending machines, toilets, and so forth. Just about any area that can accommodate two or more people will function as an interaction node. These are the places where serendipity happens, so design accordingly. Maximize the probability of chance encounters. This helps generate the buzz that makes spaces come alive.

Emphasize visibility and transparency

From private offices to cubicles to open-plan office landscapes, there is a clear trend toward increased visibility in workplace design. If walls are really necessary, consider making them out of glass (with curtains or blinds to provide visual privacy when truly necessary). Because open offices generate a lot of background noise, acoustics may be a concern. Taller ceilings help, as do absorptive finishes, and in some cases sound masking systems can be very effective. (If there’s any doubt about the ability of people to screen out distraction in a fairly noisy environment, just observe any airport waiting area.) For conversations which need to be kept private, scattering “huddle rooms” or private phone booths works well. When people can see what’s going on around them, they feel more connected, more included, and more inclined to communicate with their colleagues.

Right-size the workstations

In a private office, it’s easy to accumulate a lot of paraphernalia which is extraneous to the actual job at hand. A well designed workstation will provide adequate desk space, seating, technology, and some storage, but very little else. Anything that can be shared (like access to centralized files or office supplies) should be shared. This has two direct benefits: it reduces the per-capita square footage allotment (thus increasing density and reducing the space cost per employee), and it also encourages staff interaction through access to shared resources. Creating a culture of sharing is fundamental to teamwork. To promote the benefit of working in teams, make the common spaces more lavish and inviting while minimizing the personal work areas.

Provide bait

At one time or another during the day, every single person will grab a cup of coffee or bottle of water, have a snack or a meal, and use the toilet. These are prime opportunities to engage in casual conversation, share news, run into familiar colleagues, or perhaps meet someone new. If the break areas are also equipped with comfortable seating, information screens or white boards, and note pads, it increases the likelihood that actual work will get done on an ad hoc basis. Hence, don’t think of casual interaction areas as extraneous space “away from work” but rather as an integral part of the office environment, just as productive as the personal work stations.

Turn formal meetings into campfires

Most conference and meeting rooms are set up for a presenter at one end, backed up by a projection screen that runs endless PowerPoint slides. This is the classic lecture hall: a single source of information broadcasting to a passive audience (which is frequently distracted, checking messages and catching up on email). Ironically, traditional meeting rooms are actually designed for suboptimal engagement. The solution is simple: just re-arrange the furniture. Try setting up the seating using U-shapes, squares or circles, so that the attendees actually have to face each other. The result will better listening and more engagement. While you’re at it, make the walls (if they are really necessary) of glass, so that those passing by can get a sense of what’s going on. Better information flow leads to more engagement and richer feedback.

Reduce hierarchy

The private office is a traditional symbol of power and status in an organization. Some will claim that it is necessary to do the job at hand, but the truth is that private offices are mostly unoccupied during the day, as their occupants are off attending meetings, seeing clients, traveling, etc. Thus, a private office may actually be the single least efficient space in the entire workplace. At the very least, each private office could be set up to function as a conference room when its regular occupant is not present. Better yet, eliminate them altogether and find other ways to provide sufficient perks and status symbols. Teams function best if they are not inhibited by hierarchy, as this encourages participation at all levels of the organization. (And if you listen carefully, you might find that the best ideas often come from those the bottom of the organization rather than the top, since they are closest to the action.)

All the world’s a stage

Think of the office environment as a bare theater stage that is full of “props”: desks, chairs, tables, files, copiers, coffee makers, etc. Each day, like each play, is unique. There is always new information to process, different colleagues to meet with, and the next set of issues to address. Keep the overall spatial arrangement simple, allowing for flexible arrangement of the furniture, so that when the script changes, the scenery can adapt accordingly. This enables the re-arrangement of teams or even whole departments as new circumstances arise. The trick is to stay flexible without becoming trendy. Avoid creating change for the sake of change.

Programming is all-powerful

As with baseball or football, it’s not the field itself, but the action on the field that really matters. Space may set the context, but it is how the space is actually used that determines the ultimate outcome. There are many techniques that can be used to promote interaction among the staff, such as careful scheduling events throughout the day (especially breakfast, lunch, and dinner, since food is a strong attractor), bringing in guest speakers for specialized topics, sponsoring monthly special events, including community events, and scheduling occasional family-oriented activities (both inside and outside the office). In short, the office should be a place where interesting stuff happens all the time. When determining who sits where, think like a wedding planner: you’ll want to group some like-minded people with compatible skills or experience, but you can also spice it up by mixing the generations or people with different skill sets or points of view. When scheduling formal events that involve food, consider using place cards to make sure that certain people will have a chance to engage with those they’ve not previously met.

Factor in technology

The internet has effectively dissolved any physical barriers to the notion of “workplace.” This changes how information is accessed and processed, and sets up a new dynamic for how people can communicate and collaborate. Telepresence rooms and GoTo meetings can eliminate the need to buy airline tickets. In fact, some might argue that ultimately technology could make the very idea of physical offices obsolete (all that’s really needed is a smart phone). While there is some truth to this, bear in mind that the actual work is done by real people, and that to get maximum productivity, cyberspace needs to be just as inviting a work environment as physical space.

The bottom line is that space matters. It creates the context, sets the tone, and gives off subtle yet powerful messages for how people are expected to behave. A formal space, such as a sanctuary, will reinforce values of authority, hierarchy, and compliance (which is why nobody smokes in church). Grocery stores, with their precisely aligned aisles and careful product placement, are no less formulaic in how they are laid out, but they are designed to promote different expectations and outcomes (in this case maximizing available choices to encourage point-of-sale purchasing). Even fast-food restaurants are designed to achieve certain desired effects (the seats are slightly uncomfortable so that people will not linger too long, thus maximizing throughput). In short, the spaces in which we live tell us how to behave. This point was made most eloquently and succinctly by Winston Churchill when he said that “First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.”


Scott Simpson is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and a member of its executive board. He is a senior principal consultant with the Greenway Group. With James P. Cramer, he co-authored the books How Firms Succeed and The Next Architect.