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Big Data and Workplace Design Surprises

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 11, 2014
Updated: Thursday, September 18, 2014

Business scholars believe work performance is influenced by our workspaces and that design can enhance or inhibit human interaction. Researchers are now confirming that's true, and even further, they're finding that certain kinds of design encourage specific kinds of results. They also suggest that productivity may be more a function of groups than of individuals, and teamwork too can be fostered by design.

According to a new report published in Harvard Business Review, face-to-face encounters and chance encounters with others are vital for improvement of workers in a knowledge economy. Authors Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi, and Greg Lindsay conducted experiments in which employees in hospitals and pharmaceutical, finance and software companies voluntarily wore isometric badges that captured social interactions, conversation, movement, posture and physical location. They write that face-to-face interactions are "by far the most important activity in an office," and that unplanned encounters among people inside and outside an organization improve performance.

Lindsay, who is working on a book he calls Engineering Serendipity, told Fast Company's Lydia Dishman that employees wearing the devices were monitored for six to eight weeks and data was randomized to protect individual identities. Content of conversations was not recorded. Earlier research found that physical distance negatively affected communication even among digitally connected people. Interestingly, the Fast Company story says, studies by Waber found that engineers who shared physical space were 20 percent more likely to communicate digitally. When working on projects, they emailed four times as often and finished 32 percent faster than engineers working on the project in different places.

Waber, Magnolfi and Lindsay cite a 2012 HBR article by Alex "Sandy" Pentland who did similar research tracing movements and interactions of employees wearing badges. Pentland identified three key elements of successful business communication: exploration (interacting with people from diverse groups) engagement (interacting with people in your own group) and energy (interacting with more people overall.)

Waber an colleagues in their HBR story cite examples of spaces designed for specifically desired results. For example, engagement tends to produce more productivity. So if a business wants more productivity, walled off work stations and spaces for small-group collaboration, could be a successful design and the group's break area could be a crucial space for chance collisions among group members.

The Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor designed open, public spaces with "hot seating"-no assigned desks-and spaces that could be easily reconfigured for different uses. Its executives wanted change and innovation, so they designed the kinds of open spaces that foster exploration and unplanned encounters. A design that fostered engagement might have been detrimental for a goal of innovation.

Pharmaceutical company executives wanted to increase sales, but weren't sure what behaviors would help. Deployed with badges, they found sales increased when salespersons interacted with people on other teams-that is, when they increased exploration. To encourage inter departmental mingling, the company got rid of several small coffee stations that served half a dozen people. They created bigger coffee stations, that served 120 people each, and replaced small cafeterias with a large one. Sales rose 20 percent.

The authors caution that what works for one company might not work for another and some results will be unintended. A furniture company, for example, needed both exploration among some sales people and more engagement among specific groups who needed improved communication. Fewer desks and unassigned seats increased overall interactions, but energy levels and communications declined. The authors say changes didn't really create movement, they just reshuffled stationery workers who didn't leave their unassigned seats once they sat in them.

The authors also suggest focus on individual productivity in performance reviews tends to divert attention from the interactions that help group performance. For instance, they write, if an employee improves group performance by sharing some successful strategy, the group gain can more than compensate for productivity the individual may have lost by taking time to share.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  design 

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