The hidden metric in office design: Kerstin Sailer's Deep Dive into the world of Space Syntax


Workplace Experience

January 4, 2024

This blog is inspired by our chat with academic heavyweight Kerstin Sailer on the Workplace Geeks podcast. Have a listen.

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What if a concealed workplace metric could make the difference between an open plan environment working or not? Imagine it has been there the whole time and we've had no idea... until now. Our conversation with Kerstin Sailer at UCL uncovered the fascinating world of space syntax.

So, what is space syntax? In a nutshell, it's an analytical approach used in architecture and urban design that sees space as a network. Instead of fixating on a building's aesthetic qualities, like colour, style or construction, space syntax considers how different spaces within a building are interconnected. It involves creating a network representation of a space and applying graph theory to study it quantitatively and mathematically – isovists.

An isovist is like imagining you're sitting somewhere, looking ahead with a 170-degree view; everything in front of you with some peripheral vision thrown in. Visualised as a spiky figure on a floor plan, it indicates how far your vision extends until it meets a wall or an object at eye level. Essentially, an isovist measures what you can see from a specific point in a space, providing insights into visibility and the visual experience within that environment.

Kerstin explained,

"If you enter a building, what can you see from where you stand? How much does the building reveal of itself immediately upon entering? Can you see the main circulation? Does the building guide you by its layout to where you'd need to go?"

Kerstin and her colleagues used these ideas to explore the impact of desk characteristics within a workplace layout on teamwork-focused work and perceived productivity. The study went beyond generalising about open-plan offices and delved into the nuanced details of office layouts. Using isovists, the team found that factors like facing the room and having control over one's surroundings significantly influenced perceptions of productivity and teamwork, challenging some preconceived notions about open-plan offices. So, what did they find?

Unsurprisingly, facing the room led to higher satisfaction levels and perceived productivity. This tracked along with the net positive number of desks in your ‘control’ – you can see more desks in front of you than there are behind you. Being in the middle of an open-plan room was less than ideal.

"If you feel in control of the room, you have almost everything ahead of you. You are 40 times more likely to rate your workplace as productive than if you are on an average seat..."

But you can have too much. If you're faced with an endless sea of desks, it can impact the type of work you can do.

"If you're in a larger area, the more desks you can see from where you sit, the less likely you are to rate your workplace as supportive of concentration and productive work… If you have smaller areas that are more clearly defined then staff would rate those much higher".

So, contrary to expectations, larger open-plan spaces did not necessarily promote positive perceptions of teamwork. Instead, smaller, more clearly defined areas were rated higher for collaboration and team identity. Echoes of Bürolandschaft, which was mentioned in our chat with Nigel Oseland; harking back to evolutionary psychology.

So, that’s offices... but what about other workplaces?

In a compelling second paper Sailer delves into the intricate world of hospital design, shifting the spotlight from offices to wards in an exploration of how spatial layouts influence care quality.

Traditionally, when designing hospitals, the focus has been on efficiency metrics, such as the shortest walking distance for nurses. The rationale is simple – less time spent walking down corridors means more time devoted to patient care. But what if there's more to the equation? Dr. Sailer and her team proposed a different perspective – shift the focus from functional efficiency to communication between healthcare professionals.

The study, led by researcher Rosita Pachilova, takes a deep dive into the daily lives of healthcare workers in standard hospital wards. Unveiling a different dimension of hospital work, where doctors and nurses spend nearly half of their time communicating, the study challenges the conventional wisdom of what makes an ideal hospital layout.

Unlike static office spaces, healthcare professionals are constantly on the move. Nurses for instance, don't confine themselves to nursing stations. Shadowing over a hundred healthcare workers, the researchers tracked their paths, calculating viewsheds to understand spatial openness during communication. This dynamic approach captures the essence of the constant, high-stakes communication that occurs in hospitals.

What sets this study apart is its departure from the traditional metrics used in office-based analyses. In an office setting, spatial openness was found to be detrimental to organisational goals. However, the hospital study reveals that spatial openness positively influences outcomes, shedding light on the nuanced nature of spatial dynamics.

The crux of the matter lies in recognising hospitals as knowledge workplaces, not mere mechanical setups. The layout must facilitate communication, a cornerstone of quality healthcare. The study's innovative approach transcends the confines of desks and stationary work, acknowledging the fluid nature of healthcare professions.

What these studies highlight is that there is no ‘right answer’ for every organisation. Context is key. In some working environments, spatial openness can be detrimental; in others, it is crucial. For workplace professionals, it’s about knowing where they sit on that paradigm and having the data available to assess that.

Check out Kerstin at her Brainybirdz site, and have a proper read of both the papers. This one for the office environment, this for the hospital environment.

Photo by LYCS Architecture on Unsplash

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