An architect by training, then a professor at Arizona State University, and now a business strategy consultant, Kristine Woolsey studies the impact of the physical environment on human behavior:
Numerous anthropological studies show that group size — the number of individuals who live or work together — is key to peaceful collaboration in all kinds of environments. The ideal group size for forming bonds of trust is around six to eight people, Woolsey said.
A gang of four can be easily dominated by one strong personality; any larger than eight, and they’ll to need to elect a leader. But right in the middle, there’s “a sort of peer pressure in terms of expected social behavior” that leads people to act in the common interest, she said.
Effective open-plan offices, such as the ones Google Inc. has designed in Zurich and Dublin, and the ones offered by NextSpace, a California-based company that rents workspaces to freelancers and small businesses, place employees in hubs of six to eight, with nearby common areas accessible to several groups, Woolsey said. Thus, rather than dividing up a giant workforce into “acres of gray cubes,” the office is instead comprised of small groups nested within larger ones.
Jeremy Neuner, the CEO of NextSpace, said he’s observed that workers naturally congregate in groups of six to eight. Recently at the company’s Santa Cruz headquarters, as a sort of experiment, a 12-seat conference table was moved into an open area of the office. Sure enough, Neuner said, six to eight people gathered there to work.
“Except when they’re up against a deadline, people are not looking for their own closed-in spaces,” Neuner said.
As Woolsey sees it, the traditional open-plan office is no better at adapting to the way people work than the old cubicle-dotted office.