Fine tuning office design and its most wonderful invention to our fundamental needs

The best workplaces are always focused on people. Which is why many of the great pioneers of workplace thinking are from the social sciences, including disciplines such as psychology, ethnography and anthropology. These are the people who have shared the insights that help us to understand the characteristics of great office design. In particular, this relies on an awareness of the ways in which people interact in particular spaces. And one long-established body of research by the organisational psychologist Tom Allen at MIT describes the correlation between physical proximity and the frequency and value of communication between colleagues. In other words, a business case for the existence of offices in a world in which technology has made total remote working possible.


The architecture of innovation

In 1984, Allen published a book called Managing the Flow of Technology which first described what we now know as the Allen Curve. It graphed the powerful correlation between physical distance and the frequency of communication between colleagues. So precisely was this defined in Allen’s research, that he found that 50 metres marks a cut-off point for the regular exchange of certain types of technical information between the engineers he studied. The distance between the engineers’ desks and offices had a significant impact on the frequency of communication between them.

It is a subject Allen has returned to repeatedly in the years since. In 2006, he published a book called The Organization and Architecture of Innovation co-authored with the German architect Gunter Henn. The book explores how physical space, networks, flows of information and organisational structure must be integrated to drive innovation.

The authors argue that: “rather than finding that the probability of telephone communication increases with distances, as face to face probability decays, our data shows a decay in the use of all communication media with distance. We do not keep separate sets of people, some of which we communicate in one medium and some by another. The more often we see someone face to face, the more likely it is that we will telephone the person or communicate in some other medium.”

 The issue of how people interact with each other was also the subject of an earlier study by the anthropologist William H Whyte who, in 1970, established a research project that applied anthropological principles to the study of how people used space and interacted with each other in the streets and parks of New York.

The findings of what he referred to as The Street Life Project were published in a book called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and a film, summarised here. One interesting excerpt from the film looks at the way people use seating in shared spaces to create their own best space. We take something like a moveable chair for granted, but the film refers to its as a ‘wonderful invention’.