Why Offices Designed for Bringing People Together Fail

Last Updated Jun 30, 2011 2:00 PM EDT

When I started my career in 1976, conversation that was not related to work was not only discouraged but banned by fiat. "Take it to the break room," was what a supervisor told me when I engaged a colleague in a recap of the action on Monday Night Football.

Thinking on the negative impacts of water cooler chitchat has changed radically. Just like scientists have discovered that chocolate and red wine are good for you, so too have the guys and gals in white lab coats learned that casual interactions among employees promote trust, cooperation and, yes, even innovation.

Hmmm, wondered people who design office space for a living. Could we create spaces to encourage such hook-ups? And so began a series of high-profile workplace redesigns that resulted in open floor plans, lower cubicle walls and physical spaces that resembled town commons, Parisian cafes and playgrounds. Most failed.

The reasons why makes for interesting reading in Who Moved My Cube?, in Harvard Business Review. But here's the gist. Instead of encouraging informal contacts, these places became crowded, loud, time-sinking, non-private gathering spots that employees soon decided to avoid rather than join. And the discussions that occurred in them were superficial rather than something that people bonded around.

According to the authors of the piece, researchers Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks, three prerequisites are required to design spaces that promote casual but important interactions:

  • Proximity. These spaces must be be near large amounts of foot traffic. Copy machines and coffee makers make fine people magnets in this regard.
  • Privacy. People need to feel they can talk without fear of interruption or of being overheard. Alcoves can provide protected spaces.
  • Permission. The corporate culture must promote the idea that it's OK to stop and chat. Comfy furniture and work machines help create that message.
It turns out that photocopiers might be the best lure of all to attract users and encourage conversations. That's because people help each other when the inevitable paper jam or dry ink cartridge occurs. Another conversation starter comes from the documents printed on them, which creates opportunities for passers-by to learn what's going on in the office. "Had the photocopier been designed specifically to inspire social interaction, it could have hardly succeeded better," write Fayard and Weeks.

Now look around at your office spaces. Are they designed to inspire or discourage informal conversation?

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(Photo by Flickr user SSDG Interiors, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.