The Empty Bus Effect

Why People Aren't Interacting In Large Common Spaces

The Potential Benefits of Big Common Spaces

There are offices everywhere with big, beautiful common spaces for their employees and for members of coworking spaces to gather. The benefits promised to come with these spaces are great—they’re supposed to increase innovation, help people create new connections, and become lively, collaborative environments that lead to better relationships and more business.

In theory, common spaces are great places for forming culture and community because they provide the space and opportunity for interactions that otherwise wouldn’t happen. These spaces—if designed correctly—can cultivate these amazing benefits, but more often than not they’re not doing what they promised.

Too Far To Talk

These spaces are beautiful, filled with big comfy chairs, free snacks, and sometimes even ping pong tables for people to play together. In most cases, though, just because two people who don’t know each other happen to be sitting in the same big open room does not mean they’re going to talk to one another (or play ping pong.) In fact, most of the time people will naturally spread out so far that they never have the chance to interact.

This sort of social situation happens in our personal lives too. Imagine two guys at a bar. If they don’t know each other and the bar is pretty empty, it’s safe to say they’ll be sat a good distance away from each other. If they’re sitting on opposite ends of the bar then the chances of them interacting with one another are extremely low. Like magic though, if for some reason they’re sitting next to each other and start watching the game, they are much more likely to have something to talk about and start a conversation.

When you think about it it’s pretty simple. People need to be close to one another for the chance that they’ll interact. When designing spaces that are hoped to have high interaction, the reality that people are spreading out is rarely taken into account.

It is assumed that if there is a space for people to interact in, then they will. However, in practice, people are rarely close enough to one another for natural interaction to occur, due to our tendency to spread out when we enter a space.

The Empty Bus Effect

To understand why most common spaces actively keep people too far away from each other to enable organic interaction, we can think of them like empty buses.

Imagine being the first passenger on a bus. You’re sitting comfortably as the next passenger steps onboard. They start making their way back, except instead of taking any of the perfectly good empty seats around you, they walk right up to your seat and sit down next to you. You’d likely feel panicked. Scratch that, you’d probably freak the hell out. It’s SO far from the realm of normal human behavior that you start to assume potential behaviors from this unpredictable stranger. These could realm from, “Is this person going to try to talk to me?” to “Is this psychopath going to murder me?” And, because they’re a stranger to you, both options are equally likely in your mind.

On the flipside, when we’re the ones choosing where to sit when there are empty seat options, regardless of intentions, our self-conscious and social norms influence where we will likely end up. You may worry that the stranger thinks you’ll hit on them, or that you have ulterior motives for sitting next to them.

With all of these assumptions and concerns, plus our desire to have more space to ourselves, wherever the option is available, it’s much easier to just keep our distance with people we don’t know. For the most part, we’ll keep spreading out until there is no choice but to sit next to someone else.

We Spread Out in Office Spaces Too

Shouldn’t people feel comfortable to be able to sit next to their coworkers and start chatting? In an ideal world—yes, but in reality, and especially in larger companies, most employees don’t know that many other employees and are likely to treat each other that way. Everyone continues to spread out, avoid awkward eye contact, and keep to themselves.

This is exactly what happens in the large common space. And what’s worse is that the problem scales with size. The larger the space is, the more options people have to spread out and the less likely it is that the employees will mingle.

Every time someone walks into a space, they’ll scan the area and in seconds will have determined where to avoid, mostly following the path of least resistance to a seat that is a socially acceptable distance away from others.

It doesn’t matter how big and beautiful a common space is. Just because people can interact in it doesn’t mean they will. Just because you can make friends on a bus or a Starbucks, or a bar, it’s still incredibly rare. The reality is, people will instinctively spread out in a way that creates too much distance between them for any chance of spontaneous interaction.

Smart Common Space Design

Companies know that when employees interact and form close relationships, the collaboration between departments increases and employee attrition decreases.

These benefits were always something that common spaces were meant to be cultivating, but in reality, they relied far too much on the people in the spaces to be unrealistically friendly. With a better understanding of how to design with human behavior in mind, spaces can be created that increase the likelihood of people being close enough to interact.

It’s easy to see the empty bus effect in action. Just go sit in a common area of any large office or coworking space early in the morning and watch as it starts to fill up. You’ll see the pattern of spreading out unfold in a predictable way, and once you see it, you’ll start to see it everywhere.

The solution here isn’t to get rid of common spaces, as then you’d be getting rid of the benefits that they can provide. It’s about understanding that people will naturally spread out and we must account for those dynamics while designing large common spaces.

For those creating spaces who want to get a better idea of how to account for the empty bus effect in their designs, start with {this post} on how to calculate the facilitation threshold of a space.