Jeromy Anglim's Blog: Psychology and Statistics

Friday, April 23, 2010

Implications of Office Layout and Building Design for Social Networks

This post presents some rough notes reviewing the literature related to office layout and building design and the implications for social network formation and organisational performance.


Today I attended a talk by Robert Kaše discussing the benefits that the social network perspective can offer to an understanding of human resource management interventions. There is clearly great potential for further application of social network analysis to understand work settings. One such area that has interested me recently is office layout and design (see here for introduction to SNA). Given the role that physical and virtual space plays on network formation, this raises implications for the degree to which an organisation's spatial arrangement of staff is facilitating existing network ties and fostering the development of valuable new network ties.

In particular, I was interested in the following questions:
  1. If an organisation has a new building with an existing workforce, how should the office space be arranged and where should each employee be placed?
  2. What are the desired outcomes?
  3. What effect does the spatial arrangement of employees have on facilitating desired outcomes?


Schuler, Ritzman, and Davis (1981, Merging Prescriptive and Behavioural Approaches for Office Layout) review the literature on office layout design principles. They distinguish between what they call prescriptive and behavioural approaches. Prescriptive approaches represent various rules that guide office layout. Behavioural approaches are driven by empirical methods that evaluate the effectiveness of alternative layouts.

The following are a few guiding principles:
  • Group similar entities
  • Demarcate different entities.
  • Allow sufficient space for entities
  • Facilitate orderly work flow
  • Create a pleasant work environment
Schuler et al also discuss some of the algorithms used in the literature to find optimal spatial arrangements. These algorithms all require some means of determining the utility of a given spatial arrangement. Such utility models are sometimes more problematic as the nature of the work becomes more complex and less structured.

Davis (1984, The Influence of the Physical Environment in Offices) provides a review of the literature on the effect of the office environment on organisationally relevant variables. However, Davis provides little guidance regarding the relative positioning of staff within a building. Rather, Davis focuses on features of offices themselves.

Theoretical Frameworks

Several reviews (e.g., Schuler et al; Oldham and Brass, Employee Reactions to an open-Plan Office) review social relations and socio-technical perspectives.
Social Relations Perspective
  • Spatial structure encourages social interaction: Oldham and and Brass summarise this perspective stating that "individuals are most likely to interact and communicate with others when the physical characteristics of buildings and settings encourage them to do so" (p.268). This immediately raises several questions: (a) what characteristics facilitate interaction? (b) to what extent is increased social interaction a good thing? (c) If space encourages some social interaction, it implicitly discourages other interactions. Therefore, by what criteria should some interactions be encouraged?
  • Spatial proximity tends to increase liking: Some research suggests that proximity encourages interaction which in turn encourages positive attitudes between social actors. My thoughts on the matter: (a) Interaction will increase awareness and the potential for positive social experiences. Thus, interaction is not sufficient for positive relationship formation. (b) There is once again the issue of liking being selectively facilitated and needing to justify this selective facilitation on some basis.
  • Bounded areas have benefits: Oldham and Brass (1979) state that bounded spaces can reduce distractions, unwanted noise, the opportunity for private conversations.
  • Bounded areas clarify roles
Philosophical Frameworks

Applications to Academia

Ritzman, Bradford, and Jacobs (1979, A Multiple Objective Approach to Space Planning for Academic Facilities) presents a case study in allocating academics from multiple departments to offices in a building. Ritzman and colleagues defined the problem in terms of a multiple objective optimisation problem. They highlighted the importance of having decision makers involved in the modelling. Their model provided information about relative optimality of various proposed solutions. The model also assisted in resolving issues associated with sharing a limited resource. However, Ritzman et al's research aimed only to allocate portions of space fairly and optimally to each department. It was not concerned with the spatial arrangement of academics. These decisions were deferred to the department.

The paper does raise the points that in an academic environment, there is often an expectation that the quality of a room will be related to the academic's position. Such factors include:
  • Special senior position (e.g., head of department, dean, etc.)
  • Academic level
  • Part-time versus full-time status
  • Whether they have an office somewhere else
And that ratings of room quality take into consideration:
  • Size
  • Air-conditioning
  • Outside noise
  • Window space
  • View
  • General attractiveness

Evaluating a transition

Oldham and Brass (1979) evaluated their office restructuring in terms of:
  • Ease of intradepartmental and interdepartmental interaction
  • Friendship opportunities
  • Supervisor and co-worker feedback
  • Interdepartmental conflict
  • Job characteristics, such as autonomy and task identity
However, Oldham and Brass were specifically looking at open plan offices. Thus, the issue of the relational positioning of people and roles within a building were not addressed.

Schuler, Ritzman, and Davis (1981) present a model called "A Role Perceptions Model of Spatial Arrangments" (p.135). It includes: "layout and design variables: size and density; walls and partitions; placement of entities", "layout objectives: cost; proximity to relevant others; privacy; accessibility", "job conditions and role perceptions: autonomy; identity; friendship opportunities; feedback; role conflict; role ambiguity" "individual outcomes: satisfaction; motivation; performance" and "individual qualities: need for clarity; need for autonomy; culture; adaptation"

Social Network Analysis

Wong, Pattison, and Robins (2008, A spatial model for social networks) present models, data, and ideas on the relationship between physical space and social networks. The authors discuss the important role that space plays in network tie formation. They distinguish between two forms of homophily effects (i.e., the idea that birds of a feather flock together). Baseline homophily and inbreeding homophily. With reference to space, the arrangement of other people in space often increases interactions with similar others and may produce a baseline homophily effect over and above any general preference an actor may have for forming relationships with similar others. They fit a number of spatial exponential random graph models to datasets including one representing an office communication network.

I in collaboration with James Canty and Alex Wearing also have research data that looked at social networks in the classroom. Although it was not the focus of interest, it was clear in the pilot study that the social structure of class exercises and the positioning of students in the class were major, perhaps the major, factor influencing interaction patterns in the class room. I have also observed casually the profound influence that room layout can have on student interactions.

Concluding Comments

So, what are your thoughts?
  • How important is building layout and office design for network formation?
  • What is an ideal office network?
  • To what extent should design facilitate existing networks versus foster new networks?
  • To what extent is social network analysis relevant to decisions of office design and layout?

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