It’s popular for offices and coworking spaces to say their environments, “facilitate relationships and foster community.” Why wouldn’t they promise these great things? The benefits said to come along with higher connection are hopeful: more collaboration between departments, faster innovation within teams, skill sharing, and a greater chance of employees creating friendships that keep them from leaving. If all these are the result of better human connection, how do we know these spaces are really cultivating it? And if they are, how can we make those spaces even better?
We know that if you want to design an office to hold more people, you add more desks or even floors. But if you want to design an office to create more connections, what do you add more of then?
Relationships 101: In order for people to connect in real life, they need to be in the same place at the same time. When two people are in close enough proximity, an opportunity to interact with each other presents itself.
People have opportunities to interact with one another every day: waiting for the train, sitting next to someone on an airplane, or at a communal dining table in a restaurant. These are all scenarios where simply standing or sitting next to someone creates an opportunity for them to casually interact.
So why call these situations “opportunities”? Well, just because these two people are close enough to interact with one another doesn’t mean they will, but without the opportunity, they definitely can’t interact.
Since you can’t force people to interact with each other, when you’re designing a space to be better at connecting people, all you can do is provide them with more opportunity to do so.
So how can a physical layout be the reason that two people end up being next to each other?
For a space to be responsible for having facilitated an opportunity for two people to interact, it must somehow increase the likelihood of two people ending up in close proximity to each other.
The simplest example of this can be seen below. If two random people walk in and want to sit down in the space on the left, the distance and orientation of the seats doesn’t create a natural opportunity for interaction. If however, they were to sit down in the space on the right, they would be close enough to interact with each other, and an Interaction Opportunity is created.
The layout of the space on the right creates the opportunity for two people to interact in a way that the layout of the space on the left does not.
As people tend to be in a single spot for a longer period of time when they are seated, having two of these frequently used spots next to one another, creates the container that provides people with the opportunity to interact.
This means that most of the Interaction Opportunities come from the relationship between seats, whether it’s two seats on a sofa, two desks next to each other, or a stool next to a coffee machine.
While these simple examples may seem obvious, if you want to improve how good a space is at creating connection, it’s important to distinguish between what is an interaction opportunity and what just looks like one.
A common mistake that leads people to overestimate how good a space is for facilitating connection between people, is thinking that a specific layout creates many more Interaction Opportunities than it does.
In the example below, the two occupied spots do not create an Interaction Opportunity even though it may initially seem as if they would. For one of the people to start a conversation with the other, they would need to get up, walk over, and start talking.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “How does that not count? I would totally do that,” then congratulations you are considerably more social than most people. This isn’t typical behavior. It’s more realistic that the person would have to be particularly social, and/or have a particularly good reason to go over and start a conversation.
In this example, this isn’t an Interaction Opportunity because the two people aren’t close enough to interact in the seats they’ve chosen. When it comes to distance, a simple rule of thumb is, if one or both of the people move for the interaction to occur, then the space hasn’t put them close enough to interact...they have.
If an interaction occurs between two people who are in the scenario above, that is not a property of the space, it is a property of the people in the space.
You can put hyper-social people into ANY space and they’ll interact with one another, that doesn’t mean the space itself is good at facilitating interactions.
When designing a space to be good at connecting people, you shouldn’t count something as an Interaction Opportunity that’s created by the space if it requires particularly social people for interaction to occur.
By removing the reliance of social people to start interactions, you are able to design environments where the space is better at connecting people, regardless of who occupies it.
When one of the goals of a space is to facilitate connection, it shouldn’t be something you cross your fingers and hope for, it should be intentionally designed.
If you want to increase the probability of people connecting, you have to increase the amount of opportunities that they have to interact. Since you can’t control where people will sit (in common spaces), you have to increase the probability that a person entering the space will end up next to someone else.
For example, one way to increase the number of interaction opportunities a person may have is to change the layout (see below). Where the number of desks are the same but the number of Interaction Opportunities is not.
In many cases, it doesn’t take an entire office redesign to get more people interacting with one another. It’s about seeing the space through the lens of creating connection and improving the properties that influence relationship formation.
We’ll talk more about increasing these Interaction Opportunities soon, but for now, click here to read about how too many Acknowledgement Opportunities can ruin a company culture.