Wednesday, February 25, 2009

the office as a tool 1.6 - surprises

In our last post in our series summarizing Michael Brill's short booklet The Office as a Tool he spoke about how their research found that there were limited numbers of activities that went on at work, and they could be accommodated by even fewer workstation types. Similarly there are a limited number of different types of work groups.

Next he went on to describe several surprises that they found in their research. These are very enlightening so lets look at each of them.

They found that enclosure not only promotes privacy, but it promotes communication as well. Where as the opposite - a wide open "bull-pen" office discourages communication. Counterintuitive? I can see it. In a big room, no privacy for anybody, you can feel as if there are always some eyes on you, and it can certainly inhibit your behavior. Are you talking to your neighbor? Are others listening? What will they think? Am I wasting time? Is my idea stupid? Perhaps I'll just keep my head down.. Where as stepping into somebody else's space, and sharing a conversation with only them, may allow a less inhibited conversation to happen. The lesson is that communication is more than line of sight - it involves the setting and the comfort level of the workers. The environment is more than proximity and barriers are just as often the emotional ones as the physical ones.

A related idea they found was that enclosure is more important than supervision. The manager that believes he will get better work from his people by having them all in sight does more harm than good. Again supervision is more than line of sight. Furthermore they found that in order for a manager to oversee in this manner their own workstation had to be out in the open as well, and that their work suffered in the same way as their staff.

In some ways this should be no surprise at all that enclosure and control of your privacy would be beneficial for your work. Most people would find a days work spent out in the "public" a tiring experience. No opportunity to retreat from presenting yourself to others, the effort of productive work thrown on top of that as well. Yet we see many examples of open desking in progressive workplaces? Perhaps as we continue the book may shed some light on this contradiction.

Next time we'll continue with more surprises.


  1. Cities used to exist because they lowered cost: mainly through transportation of inputs and goods, but also of people (commuting 25 miles each way to work would have been prohibitive before the auto or at least the bus). However, transportation costs are now so low and communication technology so advanced, that the force that concentrates economic activity is agglomeration benefits. There are several versions, but one of the most interesting is that when you are "around" other people who are experts at doing things that are somehow related to what you do, you pick up ideas that make you more productive. Alfred Marshall (same guy who, in the same book, first described supply and demand) talked about cities as a place where ideas move from one person to the next, informally.
    "When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighborhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously." Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics, Book 4, Chapter 10.
    He believed that people all working in the same industry would be most beneficial so either concentrations of firms in the same industry or large firms with lots of people working on similar problems would benefit most from this informal and inadvertent learning. Silicon Valley, or maybe even Detroit in an earlier time, are prime examples of this.
    Jane Jacobs said the same thing in "The Economy of Cities" and 1995 Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas thought she deserved the prize herself for how she added to the idea. Her thought was that the largest benefits would accrue across industries. I may work in dress making, but hearing about an assembly line in manufacturing might be much more beneficial than overhearing a conversation about dressmaking at another firm. In her view, large and diverse cities should me most productive and to support that, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York and Boston produce the most patents per capita of any cities on earth. These knowledge spillovers are now routinely investigated and talked about in the economics literature. In fact, the rule of thumb is that worker productivity increases by 10% for every doubling of population size and this relationship holds for cities from 30,000 population to NYC.
    So at the end of the day, the Brill book suggests that there are limits on this informal and maybe even inadvertent sharing of ideas. I gotta read this book.

  2. Not so much limits, but clearly he feels that there are factors in the office that can support this sharing, and others that inhibit it.
    I should not say "feels" because they back up their findings with research, although this kind of data is not in this small booklet.


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