Panopticons and Social Business

Yesterday I visited our new Dachis Group headquarters in Austin.  Part of the day was spent arranging desks to form workspaces while giving thought to fostering conversations, where foot traffic might flow, and planning for today vs. tomorrow.

If you’re in a corporate office, look around you.  Do managers and higher ranking executives occupy offices along the walls?  Do junior staff sit in cubicles in-between?  Where do you position your computer, your chair, your personal effects – where others can readily see them or where you’ve got an extra second for a quick alt-tab?

As we finished setting up furniture and took up our new positions, I realized we had more or less replicated the panopticon.  Here’s some more history in a post I wrote last year called “Panopticons and social behavior“:

In the 18th century, English architect Jeremy Bentham designed the panopticon, a prison structure that allowed guards to watch prisoners without knowing when they were being observed – so that prisoners felt that they might be under watch at all times.  Two centuries later, French philosopher Foucault applied the idea to discipline in the organization, particularly in the industrial age.  Managers and foreman stood in offices high above the shop floor to observe activity below.  In modern offices, the panopticon persists in today’s cube farms – where open work spaces may foster collaboration, but also facilitate observation by managers and peers.

As we think about how social business becomes reality, thought leaders advise that we focus on people and culture, beyond the technologies.  If we stop there, we have still only addressed the technology issue, i.e. application and user.

Social business requires a focus on physical reality.  “Real life” as some would say.  And for corporations, that means rethinking the office space.  Yesterday I heard it called “the forgotten factor.”  Indeed.  Some spaces I’ve seen have a fairly open arrangement, like the Humana Innovation Center.  But most follow a traditional hierarchically-based system of awarding senior people with prime observation positions.

Take a look around.  Is your space ready for social business?

Join the Conversation

No comments

  1. But most follow a traditional hierarchically-based system of awarding senior people with prime observation positions.

    I remember my absolutely-first project as a junior consultant with Hay Management Consultants in 1985.

    It was a survey of about 10 comparator organizations in Montreal and Toronto (a couple of the big banks and a couple of big manufacturing companies, etc.) wherein I was tasked with asking each of the organizations:

    1. How many square feet allotted for the offices of sr. managers and executives within a certain range of Hay job evaluation points
    2. Whether the (or how many of the ) comparator organizations provided the incumbents with high-backed leather chairs
    3. whether the incumbents within that range of hay job evaluation points were entitled to an office with a window, and
    4. whether the incumbents within that range of hay job evaluation points were entitled to have an indoor plant taller than 3 feet, and if not, whether they were entitled to any plants art all in the office space

    All this to develop a policy as to office entitlements for people at or above a certain level in the hierarchy, defined by the Hay points.

    I remember thinking to myself how asinine this project was, and wondering why an organization would spend any consulting money on such asininity.

    But hey, I was an eager-beaver junior consultant back then with huge billing targets, and billing was billing πŸ˜‰

  2. Right: technology (structure) and people (perceptions). Sociologists and psychologists incessantly debate this issue. Traditional network theorists would argue that the most important thing in predicting a given outcome, like collaboration, is the type of connections between people (imagine a floorplan crafted from the measurements wirearchy did, above). A more psychological or “interactionist” approach would say that perceptions and subjective dispositions are the backbone of reality. Think: interpersonal biases. There’s some good evidence to suggest that it’s an interaction– dispositions interact with network structure (or the physical layout) to predict the outcome. Don’t be surprised if I distribute a survey today or harvest some text data from your email account!

  3. Jon – I’ll add another strange but true examples I’ve seen in action. At one financial services firm, when someone made VP they got an office and could choose a piece of artwork from storage for the walls. The more senior you were, the more pieces you could access.

  4. I’m still not sure what “social business” is (kind of jargony), but I like CEOs who have the balls, confidence and humility to sit in a cubicle with everyone else. On workplace design, you don’t have to get academic about it…the workspace is a reflection of your culture. Your culture is something you can neglect, erode or foster. A workspace that breeds life or death is a simultaneously a reflection and influence of the culture. I’ve experience both and prefer ones that breed life.

  5. Max, I think one way to define “social business” is a business that adds one or more dimensions of participation/discussion/two-way communication into its normal operations, marketing, customer care, whatever. It’s not just about tools, though. A company that uses Twitter to spank out a bunch of press releases isn’t really being social. However, one that uses social media for more than just marketing — for example, to gather great ideas from customers for their product or R&D roadmap — is well on its way.

    Peter’s point about how companies behave internally is something that I’ve been trying to emphasize in my own work. Training employees to use Jive/SocialText/Quickr/whatever is just one step in the journey toward being social/collaborative. I’ve seen plenty of groups use these tools while still hanging on to the top-down you-will-do-it-my-way non-collaborative way of working, and guess what–the employees hate using the tools. Mostly because they’re not allowed to collaborate.

  6. You should really visit our “flexwork” spaces at in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Although we have an advantage of being a congress centre and having physical space to sit, people gather here, work at those places, guests, managers, employees alike. Thing really “buzz”….

    Are your workspaces “fixed”, does it allow easily rearranging for workgroups ? I’m interested about that Peter !

  7. What you describe made me think two things:

    1. Work is a prison (?)

    2. People need separate physical spaces to do the two main things they do all day long – focused “get work done” activities (sequestered), and collaborative and networking activities (communal). These two things feed on each other, round and round. Moving from one physical space to another to accomplish them would send an obvious signal to all about what you’re doing, and what you expect from your colleagues.

    One requirement for me, though: I want to take my chair wherever I go. It fits my butt and my legs’ distance to the floor better than all the other chairs, and I hate having to re-adjust other chairs.

  8. Gia Lyons said…
    What you describe made me think two things:

    1. Work is a prison (?)

    In my very first job right after university, I worked as a prison guard for 6 months.

    You know what the inmates (prisoners) call the guards ?



  9. This is a fascinating subject to me – I’ve worked in hoteling environments, open offices, cube farms, offices with cubes outside, and space with no walls whatsoever (just work tables). I think the environment I liked the best was the hoteling one which had temporary stations that had low walls between them (couldn’t see each other sitting down but fairly open when standing up) and had plenty of small enclosed phone offices and small conference rooms. I’m with Max that while you could go all wonky on this… essentially creating an environment like Gina says which is comfortable for both individual productivity and communal interaction is important. How social do you want to be may determine how many communal space you have – and how varied they are.

    Parting thoughts… Color matters.

  10. Hey Kees, I’ll be in Holland in October (Leiden at first, then touring the low countries). Would it be cool if I dropped by? Email me at tom AT tripledogs DOT com. Would love to see what you’re doing.

  11. You are so right about the physical space having an impact on the emotional space and hence productivity. There is a new book out called Enlightenment Incorporated: Creating Companies are Kids Would be Proud to Work For. It is all about how even though today society is making progress towards enlightment in government and social causes, business is still being run the old way. What do we have to do to change this!

  12. Tom, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a business that’s not social. In every business I’ve worked, everyone has participated in two-way discussion and communication in their normal operations. But agree…collaboration can be a cultural value, or not. Tools are very downstream, though can make an impact.

  13. I agree with Kate that both physical space and perception are critical here. Some network theorists do appear to hang onto the notion that connections between people account entirely for outcomes like collaboration, but there seems to be an acknowledgment that perceptions of the connections deviate from the reality of connections, and are just as important. For instance, while rethinking office space may be motivated by collaborative intentions on the part of managers, what may also be critical here is how employees interpret the motivation for this openness (both in physical space and technology). Management may intend to foster collaboration, but do employees see this as motivated by collaboration or invasive monitoring? Do employees think that they’re sitting in open floor plans because management wants to encourage collaboration, or because managers want to watch their every move? And is the result cooperation or resentment? So the question, “is your space ready for social business?” needs, of course, to be supplemented by, “are your people ready for social business: do your managers have the right intentions, and do the employees trust these intentions?”

  14. Thank you for getting the concept of Workspace Design out to your wide audience.

    Instead of just arranging things to foster conversation I suggest utilizing a data-driven approach that assesses how work is truly done (with intangibles that come through conversations being a component of that) and arranging workspaces accordingly. We use the Value Network Analysis (Verna Allee’s work) tool which can be matched with a floorplan diagram in order to incorporate all of the aspects that will be necessary in order to work effectively. See their thoughts on this here:

    ‘Ready for social business’ will look different in different organizations. Open floor plans are not the right option for all positions/organizations and many are resistant to this approach due to the need for telephone time, concentration, etc. These environments may benefit from private offices and readily available ad-hoc meeting space. I realize your post was a high-level look at this idea so just wanted to add my $.02 to say that ‘open’ isn’t alway right.

  15. I’ve really enjoyed working in the Humana Innovation Center open environment. I think that Jacob’s last point is a big one. Private rooms and ad hoc meeting space is essential in an open air office. I understand the need to reserve conference rooms for important meetings, but it saves a lot of administrative time if you can always find a glass room to duck into or an open table/couch & chairs for impromptu meetings.

    Wireless everything is the way to go… We have wireless headsets which are great if you need to take a call away from “open collaboration” happening around your desk. Wireless internet and a lot of outlets throughout the floor would be a huge bonus along those same lines. When things can happen anywhere, they usually start happening everywhere. That’s the goal, right? πŸ™‚

    I do think, however, that people generally need to be passionate about what they’re doing and like working with one another, in order to truly create a social work environment.

    Smiling needs to happen frequently.

Leave a comment

Comment now or forever hold your peas

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Being: Peter Kim