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Facilitating face-to-face communication in high-tech teams: face-to-face communication is a necessary component of team collaboration; the physical design of the space, including the visibility of workstations and the availability of community spaces, can affect the level of face-to-face communication.

The physical design of high-tech workplaces is a key challenge facing senior management today. In a world in which collaboration is increasingly seen as the engine of innovation, the physical layout of high-tech workplaces must facilitate the face-to-face (F2F) communication among R&D team members that breeds productive collaboration. Although the physical design of the workplace is but one variable in a complex constellation of factors that affect team F2F communication, it is an important one for, as Elsbach and Pratt (2008) recently noted, "everything from the efficient manufacture of computer chips to the research and development of new flavors of potato chips is affected by the design and arrangement of machinery, work spaces, environmental controls, and equipment" (182). Further, despite the increasing use of distributed teams connected through electronically mediated communication such as email, texting, instant messaging, videoconferencing, phone, and fax, recent studies have underlined the importance of F2F communication for successfully accomplishing complex team tasks (Elsbach and Pratt 2008; Allen and Henn 2007).

F2F communication is important to all team tasks, but especially to the high-tech work of R&D teams. R&D projects involve non-routine tasks with a high degree of uncertainty; past studies have shown that F2F communication is more effective than other types of communication media for transferring the complex, context-specific information required to accomplish tasks related to advancing knowledge and developing new technologies (Tushman 1979; Santoro and Saparito 2003).

However, unlike electronic mediums of communication, F2F communication requires an actual physical place for people to meet to exchange information. In this context, it is clear that careful consideration must be given to the physical design of R&D facilities in order to facilitate productive F2F interactions and to ensure that capital investments in new and upgraded facilities deliver their full value. This is a significant consideration for senior management. On average, the value of facilities and real estate accounts for 25 percent of all Fortune 500 company assets, and organizational occupancy costs rank second in firm costs, behind only worker compensation and benefits (Berry 1996). A facility designed to encourage interactions among colleagues can help deliver on that investment.

With that in mind, we set out to study how the layout and design of physical workspaces, including such factors as worker proximity (usually referred to as "headcount density" in the literature), workstation openness and visibility, and proximity to shared spaces (referred to in the literature as "collaboration opportunity") may shape patterns of F2F communication.

Background: Physical Structure Research

Early physical structure research focused on two issues: the proximity of organizational members and the dynamics and consequences of relocating organizational members from the traditional closed office to open workstations. Concerning proximity of communication partners, the findings have been clear: the probability of F2F communication between two people is inversely related to the distance separating them. Specifically, Allen (1977) has shown that the probability of F2F communication between two people is greatest when they are located within 10 meters of each other and declines to an asymptotic level after about 25 meters of separation. However, although the probability of F2F communication declines with distance from communication partner, proximity does not guarantee that F2F communication will actually take place. Moenaert and Caeldries (1996) found no reported increase in the quantity of F2F communication with colleagues after a relocation and consolidation of R&D personnel, while Hatch (1985) found a negative correlation between the proximity of organizational members and the quantity of time spent in F2F work activities.

Concerning open versus closed offices and workstations, architects and interior designers predicted that more open workstation designs would promote communication (Davis 1984), but actual field studies provided conflicting findings. Allen (1977) found that "among the members of the experimental department [for engineers who spoke with one another at a frequency of once a week or more] communication increased significantly both in terms of the number of communications per person and in number of individuals with whom the average engineer communicated" when an open workstation format was implemented (279). However, Sundstrom, Butt, and Kamp (1980) found that after a move from closed office to open workstations "practically no relationship was found at all between architectural accessibility and social interaction among co-workers" (113).

More recent studies have looked at the overall layout and design of the workplace. For example, studies by Spiliopoulou and Penn (1999) and Boutellier et. al. (2008) found that people occupying workstations adjacent to highly traveled corridors or public spaces reported significantly more F2F communication compared to workers occupying workstations more distant from main routes of circulation.

Key Variables in Workplace Design

To address the mixed results and conflicting findings of previous research, this study addresses the research question of how physical workplace design can facilitate F2F communication, focusing on the two variables that are most often considered when designing the workplace to facilitate communication--open versus closed workstations and headcount density, where headcount density refers to the number of organizational members within a given proximity to each other.

To examine the impact of physical design, usually conceptualized as an opposition between closed offices and open workspaces, we adopted a slightly different perspective, distinguishing between high-visibility and low-visibility workstations. This variable was introduced to allow exploration of the notion that visibility within the overall layout of the workspace drives team F2F communication, rather than the physical characteristics of closed offices versus open, low-walled workstations. Further, when considering the importance of headcount density to foster F2F communication, it was not clear that previous research always distinguished between team and non-team communication. We therefore examined the relationship between the numbers of workers located in close proximity to one another while carefully controlling for team membership.

Finally, this study introduces and explores a new variable not previously considered within the context of physical structure research: the effect of collaboration opportunity on F2F communication, where collaboration opportunity is defined as the number of formal and informal meeting places for F2F communication available within the workplace (Stryker 2004).

Headcount Density. Headcount density, or the number of organizational members located within close proximity to one another, is among the most studied variables in workplace design. Based on Allen's (1977) research, close proximity is defined as members located within 10 meters. Similar to research findings with regard to workstation barriers and enclosures, the findings concerning the relationship between headcount density and F2F communication have been contradictory (Hatch 1985; Moenaert and Caeldries 1996).

In reviewing the research literature on headcount density, we noted that previous studies did not always distinguish between team and non-team F2F communication. Previous research (e.g., Tushman 1979) has shown that R&D team members have a high need to communicate F2F due to the complexity and non-routine nature of their research tasks. Therefore, in this study, we specifically focused on the relationship between team membership and headcount density to further tease out this issue and ascertain its possible effect on F2F communication.

Workstation Visibility. Elsbach and Pratt's recent review (2008) of the literature on workplace design notes that the relationship between barriers and enclosures and F2F communication is one of the most studied workplace design features. The traditional argument has been that the increased visibility afforded workers by open workstation design promotes serendipitous meetings and therefore encourages F2F communication. However, as noted above, research examining these variables has produced conflicting findings.

This inconsistency may stem from a key variable in the physical design of the workspace that has been overlooked: the visibility of the office or workstation within the overall layout of the facility's design. In preparing for this study, we visited two research sites to observe the interactions of R&D team members. Over time, it became evident that the type of workstation--open cubicle workstation versus closed office--was only one factor affecting F2F communication. Another key element was the location of the workstation and its position in relation to main routes of circulation. For example, at one of the research sites, some closed offices with glass walls were located directly along the main building corridor, providing high visibility to their occupants and to those passing by, thereby facilitating F2F communication. Other offices were located away from this main corridor, behind the individual research laboratory; these locations provided their occupants a relatively low level of visibility and therefore less opportunity to interact. Similarly, at the other research site, some workstations were clearly visible from the main corridor and the open public atrium, while others were across a hallway and much less visible from public spaces, providing less opportunity for F2F interaction and communication.

From these preliminary field observations we surmised that it was not just the openness of the workstation that may affect team member visibility and provide more opportunity for F2F communication, but rather the combination of workstation openness and the overall layout of the building that creates opportunities for F2F communication. This combination of openness and location, therefore, became a key focus of this study.

Collaboration Opportunity. Finally, in this study we explore a new physical design variable, collaboration opportunity (Stryker 2004). In a classic study of residents of an apartment complex, Festinger, Schacter, and Back (1950) found that the design of an apartment complex promoted social interaction through the placement of common use facilities such as stairways, elevators, and laundry rooms along corridors and public paths of circulation. These common use facilities acted as "centers of gravity" (Allen and Henn 2007), attracting people and thereby increasing the opportunity for and likelihood of interaction.

Applying this concept to the R&D work environment, we explored the idea that the design of the workplace could facilitate communication by providing specific shared space destinations that act as centers of gravity, drawing organizational team members and thus increasing the likelihood of F2F interaction and communication and thereby presenting increased opportunities for collaboration. Collaboration opportunity is defined as specific places within the physical layout that encourage people to gather and includes formal spaces such as conference rooms and meeting rooms as well as informal meeting places such as coffee areas, copy rooms, stairways, elevator hobbies, and bathrooms.

Research Setting and Study Participants

To explore our research question, "How can the physical workplace be designed to facilitate F2F communication?", this study considered the design and layout of R&D laboratories at two different sites of a major life sciences company. The research director at Site 1 had recently been the lead scientist in the design of a new R&D laboratory at that site, and he was interested in finding out if the design of the facility actually promoted team communication. He recommended that the research director at Site 2 and his team join the study in order to add participants, since the two locations have substantially similar populations. Statistical analyses found no significant differences in demographic data between sites 1 and 2 with respect to participant age, tenure with the firm, level of education, gender, sociability index, or managerial level.

Moreover, although both sites are new-product R&D sites that engage in similar types of activities, the physical layout of the facilities at these two campuses are very different and offer strongly contrasting physical designs. Site 1 is a recently completed R&D laboratory at the company's corporate headquarters; it is a three-story facility housing state-of-the-art laboratories, offices, and open workstations oriented around an open, sky-lit atrium. Open workstations and four glass-walled offices surround the atrium on each floor. Other features of the design include a coffee bar, three glass-walled meeting rooms, and an informal break area located at the end of the atrium.

The research laboratories at Site 2 are housed on the second floor of a combined office, laboratory, and warehouse facility constructed in the 1920s. The laboratory floor has a series of labs and offices in the center of the floor surrounded by a loop corridor. The offices are separated from the labs by a glass wall. On the other side of the main loop corridor are another series of laboratories with the lab offices located along the exterior wall of the building. The break area for lab employees is located on the third floor, as are the toilets; a large cafeteria and common meeting rooms are located on the eighth floor of the building.

In summary, the two research sites were selected because, although they are both R&D sites within the same company and the researchers employed at these sites have similar backgrounds, experiences, and tasks to accomplish, the two sites provide contrasting physical workspace designs and very different headcount density and collaboration opportunity factors.

Data Collection

Observational data was gathered during numerous trips to both sites, during which the researchers walked the facilities, observed researcher interactions at various times of the day, and in general became familiar with the facility operations.

To gather data regarding F2F interactions, volunteers from among the staff at each site were asked to complete a 43-item questionnaire that asked for information about both demographic and social structure control variables. Items on the questionnaire were designed to assess such factors as leadership styles, individual sociability, and team rewards, as well as to gather data regarding position (managerial vs. non-managerial) and such demographic factors as age, education, and tenure with the firm.

Participants also identified the location of their workstations on an architectural floor plan of the site; this allowed the research team to gather additional information about headcount density, workstation visibility, and collaboration opportunity.

* Headcount Density. For the purposes of this study, headcount density was defined as the number of persons who occupy a workstation within a 10-meter radius of the target individual's primary workstation. A 10-meter radius was selected since prior research (Allen 1977) has shown that the highest probability for F2F communication occurs within 10 meters of a person's workstation.

* Workstation Visibility. At Site 1, open workstations and closed offices located adjacent to the atrium are highly visible to all occupants of all three laboratory floors, whether from the open stair in the center of the atrium, the atrium corridor, or the break areas at the end of the atrium. These were therefore identified as high-visibility workstations. Workstations located across the inner corridor, adjacent to the laboratories, are less visible, especially from the break areas and the bridges crossing the atrium; these were therefore identified as low-visibility workstations.

At Site 2, offices located in the center of the floor directly along the main circulation corridor were identified as high-visibility workstations. Other offices located along the exterior walls of the building and separated from the main corridor by the laboratory were identified as low-visibility workstations.

* Collaboration Opportunity. Collaboration opportunity was defined as the number of formal or informal contact places located within a 25-meter radius of the target individual's workstation. That radius was chosen because, as noted above, Allen (1977) has shown that the probability of F2F communication diminishes to an asymptotic level after approximately 25 meters. Contact places counted included formally designated meeting spaces such as conference rooms and meeting rooms as well as informal gathering places such as coffee bars, restrooms, copy rooms, mailboxes, supply closets, vending machines, elevators, and stairways.

After completing the initial questionnaire, participants were sent a web-based questionnaire 2-3 times each week on randomly selected days for 8 weeks. The web-based questionnaire asked participants to a) identify whom they had met in F2F communication that day, b) indicate whether that person was a team member or non-team member, and c) identify where that communication took place (their workstation, the other person's workstation, formal conference room or meeting room, informal meeting room or break area, passing in the corridor, or other).

Although the quality of F2F communication is at least as important as its quantity, we counted all F2F communications in this study. This decision was motivated by two key considerations. First, early research in this area (Zajonc 1968) has shown that all types of workplace F2F communication promote personal attraction and team cohesion by encouraging feelings of familiarity, similarity, and shared affect, and recent research on R&D teams (Beal et al. 2003) has demonstrated that cohesive teams performed team tasks more efficiently--especially the team tasks that require close coordination and communication, like R&D tasks. Second, senior R&D managers at the research sites were interested in determining the extent to which the physical design of the laboratory work place facilitated all types of F2F communication.


Results revealed significant differences in levels of F2F communications based on location and headcount density; whether employees worked in open workstations versus closed offices seemed to have less effect (Table 1). Occupants of high-visibility workstations and occupants in high headcount-density layouts reported significantly more team F2F communication than low-visibility, low headcount-density workstation layouts. Further, occupants with high collaboration opportunity reported significantly more team F2F communication than those in low collaboration-opportunity workstations. We found no significant difference in the level of F2F communication between high-visibility open workstations and high-visibility closed offices, suggesting that visibility was the overriding factor that influenced team communication, rather than the type of workstation. However, for low-visibility workstations, we found significantly more team F2F communication in open workstations compared to closed offices.

Specifically, respondents occupying high-visibility workstations reported 59 percent more F2F team communication than those in low-visibility workstations (Table 1). In high-visibility work locations, there was no significant difference in F2F communication between open, low-walled workstations and closed offices. In low-visibility situations, respondents in open, low-walled workstations reported 51 percent more team F2F communication than occupants of closed offices.

Respondents in high headcount-density workstation layouts (average 16 persons within a 10-meter radius) reported 84 percent more F2F team communication than workers in low headcount-density layouts (average 4 persons within 10 meters).

Respondents occupying workstations with high collaboration opportunity (average 22 formal or informal meeting places within 25 meters) reported 102 percent more F2F team communication than those located in workstations with low collaboration opportunity (average 4 formal or informal meeting places).


Many studies (e.g., Tushman 1979; Santoro and Saparito 2003) have shown that facilitating team F2F communications, particularly among knowledge workers such as high-tech R&D staff, plays a critical role in accomplishing complex team tasks such as advancing knowledge and new technologies. The results of this study highlight some key factors that bring much-needed clarity to the question of just how to accomplish that goal.

Previous studies did not consider workstation location and visibility in the overall context of the layout of the facility. This study found that workstation visibility--not whether a person was in a closed office or an open cubicle--was a key factor in facilitating F2F communication; in high-visibility locations, there was no significant difference in F2F communication for open versus closed workspaces. In lower-visibility work locations, however, the question of open versus closed workspaces becomes more significant; R&D workers in low-visibility locations reported significantly more team F2F communication when they worked in open, low walled workstations compared with closed offices.

This study also found that team F2F communication was significantly greater when team members were located in high-density work areas (average 16 persons within 10 meters) with a large number of informal meeting places located nearby (average 22 formal and informal meeting places within 25 meters). These findings suggest that common-use features in the workplace may have a similar "center of gravity" effect as was observed in common-use facilities in a residential apartment complex (Festinger, Schacter, and Back 1950). Just as common-use areas in residential apartment complexes draw residents together, common-use areas in the workplace appear to attract and encourage team F2F interaction.

What these findings suggest is that to facilitate team F2F communication, workstations should be designed to be as highly visible as possible, placed adjacent to main routes of circulation, open atria, or other similar centers of gravity. Clearly, not all workstations can be located along main corridors or in other high-visibility locations. Our data suggest that open workstations with low partitions and no doors can help offset the disadvantages of lower-visibility areas, since they help facilitate increased team F2F communication in these areas. This finding may be of particular interest to R&D managers located in older facilities in need of renovation. In considering facility renovations, converting some of the traditional, closed offices to open, low-walled workstations and providing increased informal meeting places offer one way to increase team F2F communication and collaboration.

We acknowledge that the generalizability of these results may be somewhat limited by the small scope of the study. These findings may nevertheless have important implications for R&D organizations in a variety of industries, since studies have shown that the need for high-tech workers to discuss complex issues via F2F communication spans both industry (Santoro and Saparito 2003) and national borders (Bertodo 1990).


This field study addresses a key workplace challenge: How do you design the physical workplace to promote team F2F communication? Companies spend significant amounts of capital designing and building new facilities and renovating older facilities, but previous research has offered conflicting findings and little guidance for designing these spaces. The results of this study offer some insight, including the importance of visibility, the possibility of using open workstations where increased visibility is not an option, and the importance of headcount density for promoting team F2F communication. Further, our study suggests that providing spaces for informal and formal collaboration opportunity also has the potential to facilitate increased F2F communication.

As Elsbach and Pratt (2008) note, "As organizations continue to extend the boundaries of physical environments (e.g., virtual organizations, hoteling, and teleworking), the importance of understanding the role that the physical environment plays on how we think, feel, and work is only becoming more critical" (217). Our study attempts to provide senior managers with some clarity to this issue as we highlight areas that have practical applicability in the critical, yet understudied role of the physical workspace in the competitive high-tech work environment.

The authors gratefully acknowledge the feedback and insights provided by the managing editor and eight anonymous reviewers.


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James Stryker earned his PhD in management from Rutgers University and is an assistant professor of management in the department of business at Holy Names University, Oakland, California. He is also a licensed architect and holds a Master of Architecture degree from Yale University. Professor Stryker's principal research interests are in the areas of team communication and the design of the physical workplace, organizational leadership, team decision making, and group dynamics. In addition to his academic career, he has over 20 years experience in the programming, design, and construction of high-tech R&D facilities. His work experience includes serving as director of facilities for a Fortune 100 pharmaceutical company and senior project manager for two nationally ranked architectural and engineering design firms,

Michael Santoro earned his PhD in management from Rutgers University and is an associate professor of management in the College of Business and Economics at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Professor Santoro's principal research interests are in the areas of strategic alliances and the external sourcing of knowledge and technological innovation. He has nearly 30 publications in edited volumes and leading peer-reviewed journals and serves on the editorial review board of IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management. He is a recipient of the prestigious Carl R. and Ingeborg Beidleman Research Award, the Class of 1961 Professorship, and the James T. Kane Faculty Fellowship. Prior to his academic career, he spent 21 years with Automatic Data Processing, Inc. (ADP), holding a number of middle and senior management positions,

DOI: 10.5437/08956308X5501013
TABLE 1. F2F Team Communication Results

Differences in F2F Communication

N=2095 F2F communication events over eight-week
test period

1 High-visibility workstations   +59% (a)
compared to low-visibility

2 Open workstations compared     No significant
to closed offices in             difference
high-visibility locations

3 Open workstations compared     +51% (a)
to closed offices in
low-visibility locations

4 High headcount density         +84% (a)
compared to low headcount
density(16 persons within 10
meters versus 4 persons)

5 High collaboration             +102% (a)
opportunity compared to low
collaboration opportunity(22
places for formal or informal
meetings within 25 meters
versus 4)

Results significant @ p< 0.05

(a) To test for a potential self-selection bias for workstation
visibility, we looked at age, level of education, gender, level
of managerial responsibility, level of sociability,  and tenure
with the company and found no significant differences between
occupants of high-visibility workstations compared with low-visibility
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Stryker, James B.; Santoro, Michael D.
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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