It’s all about trust, cultural norms and territoriality. The average family size around the world is seven people, plus or minus two. The optimal team size is seven people, plus or minus two. Google’s new facilities in Switzerland and Ireland are filled not only with wide-open spaces, but with rooms with eight desks in them. Coincidence? Not likely. The anthropological research across cultures indicates that groups of seven people, plus or minus two, create the strongest trust bonds and best reinforce cultural norms.
Woolsey Studios’ Kristine Woolsey took me through her research. She explained that “Google is not very forthcoming about their workplace research,” but you can look at what they are doing – like she did with their new office plans for Switzerland and Ireland. She explained the importance of considering trust bonds, cultural norms and territoriality in designing office spaces:
Groups of 6-8 people don’t really need a leader or a manager. Group members can operate on equal footings and guide each other. With a group that size, no one can hide. Positive and negative behaviors stand out. As previously discussed in Why You Must Lead Differently As Your Team Grows, teams of this size function like start-ups – or families. These are bonds you’ll want to strengthen by emphasizing environment and values. Physical proximity helps.
Culture is a group’s collective behavioral, relationships, attitude, values and environmental preferences and norms. These norms are driven by formal and informal reactions to stimuli like “organization charts, programs and amenities and facilities” and “will stick if groups are nested.” Any one person can hide in an organization of 1000 people. Individuals can’t in a group of 6-8. So nest groups of 6-8 in extended families of 24 in tribes of 150. This matters because culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage.
We humans are programmed to defend our territory when under threat. This is true for geography, homes – and offices. Woolsey related how Intel sent half their engineers in Arizona “out into the world.” The logic was that they should be spending so much time with clients and customers that they wouldn’t need permanent offices, but rather just flexible stations that they could use when they were in the office.
This works when people are comfortable that their jobs are secure. In Intel’s case, offices became a signal of job safety. Those in offices felt most safe. Those in cubicles felt somewhat safe. Those with flexible stations felt uncomfortable and stopped coming into the office at all.
Enjoyable, Collaborative and Fun
iOffice’s Elizabeth Dukes is adamant that work space should be designed to attract and inspire people. As she told me, “Change is going on. Leaders have to embrace that change whether it’s driven by Millennials and technology or the need to optimize the footprint or the need to drive innovation and collaboration…(Organizations) need to define their space to meet their goals.”
Dukes does not think there is one right solution for every organization. Like Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett, she knows that office layout impacts corporate culture. Her bias tends towards open offices with no or low cube walls and lots of light. But even in her own open workspace she notes that “people group together in groups of about (6-8).”
There are conflicting forces at work here. On the one hand, more closed offices enable more private conversations. On the other hand, more open offices encourage collaboration, let in light and save money through more flexible space utilization. A more open, but nested approach may be the right blend for you.
Capitalize on these insights:
- Pay attention to your team’s physical environment. It’s one of the five fundamental planks of your culture.
- Be careful of the unintended consequences of completely open plan, flexible offices. You’ll certainly save money. But at what cost in terms of trust, reinforcement of cultural norms and feelings of security?
- Physically nest teams of 6-8 in extended families of 24 in tribes of 150.
Click here for an overall executive summary of the New Leader’s Playbook articles on Forbes and links to each of the individual articles organized by category.