Graham Bird muses on the true nature of our interactions at work, and how we might learn about them.
Walking over the Sussex South Downs you can’t but notice the seemingly random well-worn tracks that crisscross the countryside. Often the shortest or easiest route between two points and usually leading to a place of interest, occasionally planned but often developing organically. Unfortunately carpets are more resilient than mud and grass else we would be able to see the same tracks forming across the office landscape mirroring the comings and goings of the occupants.
What if we could see those office tracks, what would they tell us about the movement of staff during a working day? Where and when do people stop and talk? What are they talking about; be it formal or informal, what’s the value of that conversation and why did it happen? Why is there a well-worn track to a particular desk, who sits there and why are they a focal point for others? What’s the significance of the intersection between two crossing paths that makes people gather to talk and subsequently move off to a formal meeting space?
As humans we have a tendency to group together with like-minded people, those that share the same interests, ideas and moral stance. In the business environment those groupings are dictated by the skillsets we possess and our position within the corporate machine. Agile working has gone a long way to breaking down these groups through home working and Activity Based Working. But still the underlying plan is to corral IT, HR, Finance etc. into larger groups within the flexible office space. This limits the opportunity to cross paths with colleagues from other parts of the business and have those valuable conversations that span the technical, financial, resourcing arena’s and often spark an original idea or alternative view.
At a recent AWA/Herman Miller seminar the participants discussed the importance of social cohesion. “A shared liking or team attraction that includes bonds of friendship, caring, closeness and enjoyment of each other’s company”. We spend a disproportionate amount of time in the company of work colleagues, compared to our family and friends. Relationships are formed within our own peer groups and often through chance meetings at the coffee point, print areas and other shared facilities. These relationships are important and build trust between people as well as adding to the enjoyment of the working day. These by chance gatherings happen all time and usually go unnoticed because they happen in open space.
It’s not uncommon for a chance meeting to develop from an informal to a formal interaction. After all the one common denominator we share with our colleagues is the business and the daily question of ‘How’s work’? A more relaxed engagement outside of our working corral and possibly with a colleague not directly linked to the challenge can often free up our thought processes or take them down a different more creative path.
Counter to this are pre-booked meetings that typically are formal occasions that post meeting turn into informal gatherings in corridors or coffee points. These are equally important to social cohesion.
The business definition of a key individual would probably be a person with knowledge, possibly a team leader or mentor. We would expect the office goat tracks to be well worn to these desks and also to those gregarious individuals that add so much to the wellbeing of a team or business. These focal points or Muddy Holes could be support or project teams with a critical input into an ongoing or one off problem.
Replacing the office carpet with grass probably isn’t the solution, so how do we map those well-trodden paths and areas of intense interaction? Sensors are very effective at mapping people in fixed locations. RFID potentially could go one better that it can map the free movement of known individuals in fixed locations and open plan. But to fully understand why goat tracks exist we need to understand how often they are utilised and for what purpose.
Over the last two years BakerStuart Workplace Consultants and CADM have done a considerable amount of research in this area and the exciting news is that we will soon be launching a smart solution that facilitates the capture of Chance Meetings, Social Cohesion, levels of formality, Focal Points and a raft of subtle people interactions. These Goat Tracks and Muddy Holes are created by people in response to their office environment, business and social needs. They need to be understood and reflected within the future office design.
If you’d like to know when we launch the product and read more about our understanding of how people interact at work, please subscribe to the blog and we’ll keep you posted.