The space that wasn’t

Ethan Bernstein et al

It’s never been easier for workers to collaborate – or so it seems. Open, flexible, activity-based spaces are displacing cubicles, making people more visible…. Designing workplaces for interaction between two or more individuals has never seemed so easy….

However, technological advances have allowed us to confirm that collaboration’s architecture and anatomy are not lining up…. Tracking face-to-face and digital interactions at the headquarters of two Fortune 500 firms before and after the companies transitioned from cubicles to open offices, we found that face-to-face interactions dropped by roughly 70% after the firms transitioned to open offices, while electronic interactions increased to compensate.

Why did that happen? Let’s look at the work of the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot. He wrote that performers should ‘imagine a huge wall across the front of the stage, separating you from the audience, and behave exactly as if the curtain had never risen’. He called this the fourth wall. It prevents actors from being distracted by the audience and allows them to…focus only on what they can control….

People in open offices create a fourth wall, and their colleagues respect that. If someone is working intently, people don’t interrupt her. If someone starts a conversation and a colleague shoots her a look of annoyance, she won’t do it again. Especially in open spaces, fourth-wall norms spread quickly.

(From ‘The Truth About Open Offices’, Harvard Business Review)


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