Facilitating Face-to-Face Communication in High-Tech Teams: Face-to-Face Communication Is a Necessary Component of Team Collaboration; the Physical Design of the Space, Including the Visibility of Workstations and the Availability of Community Spaces, Can Affect the Level of Face-to-Face Communication

By Stryker, James B.; Santoro, Michael D. | Research-Technology Management, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview

Facilitating Face-to-Face Communication in High-Tech Teams: Face-to-Face Communication Is a Necessary Component of Team Collaboration; the Physical Design of the Space, Including the Visibility of Workstations and the Availability of Community Spaces, Can Affect the Level of Face-to-Face Communication


Stryker, James B., Santoro, Michael D., Research-Technology Management


The physical design of high-tech workplaces is a key challenge facing senior management today. In a world in which collaboration is increasingly seen as the engine of innovation, the physical layout of high-tech workplaces must facilitate the face-to-face (F2F) communication among R&D team members that breeds productive collaboration. Although the physical design of the workplace is but one variable in a complex constellation of factors that affect team F2F communication, it is an important one for, as Elsbach and Pratt (2008) recently noted, "everything from the efficient manufacture of computer chips to the research and development of new flavors of potato chips is affected by the design and arrangement of machinery, work spaces, environmental controls, and equipment" (182). Further, despite the increasing use of distributed teams connected through electronically mediated communication such as email, texting, instant messaging, videoconferencing, phone, and fax, recent studies have underlined the importance of F2F communication for successfully accomplishing complex team tasks (Elsbach and Pratt 2008; Allen and Henn 2007).

F2F communication is important to all team tasks, but especially to the high-tech work of R&D teams. R&D projects involve non-routine tasks with a high degree of uncertainty; past studies have shown that F2F communication is more effective than other types of communication media for transferring the complex, context-specific information required to accomplish tasks related to advancing knowledge and developing new technologies (Tushman 1979; Santoro and Saparito 2003).

However, unlike electronic mediums of communication, F2F communication requires an actual physical place for people to meet to exchange information. In this context, it is clear that careful consideration must be given to the physical design of R&D facilities in order to facilitate productive F2F interactions and to ensure that capital investments in new and upgraded facilities deliver their full value. This is a significant consideration for senior management. On average, the value of facilities and real estate accounts for 25 percent of all Fortune 500 company assets, and organizational occupancy costs rank second in firm costs, behind only worker compensation and benefits (Berry 1996). A facility designed to encourage interactions among colleagues can help deliver on that investment.

With that in mind, we set out to study how the layout and design of physical workspaces, including such factors as worker proximity (usually referred to as "headcount density" in the literature), workstation openness and visibility, and proximity to shared spaces (referred to in the literature as "collaboration opportunity") may shape patterns of F2F communication.

Background: Physical Structure Research

Early physical structure research focused on two issues: the proximity of organizational members and the dynamics and consequences of relocating organizational members from the traditional closed office to open workstations. Concerning proximity of communication partners, the findings have been clear: the probability of F2F communication between two people is inversely related to the distance separating them. Specifically, Allen (1977) has shown that the probability of F2F communication between two people is greatest when they are located within 10 meters of each other and declines to an asymptotic level after about 25 meters of separation. However, although the probability of F2F communication declines with distance from communication partner, proximity does not guarantee that F2F communication will actually take place. Moenaert and Caeldries (1996) found no reported increase in the quantity of F2F communication with colleagues after a relocation and consolidation of R&D personnel, while Hatch (1985) found a negative correlation between the proximity of organizational members and the quantity of time spent in F2F work activities. …

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Facilitating Face-to-Face Communication in High-Tech Teams: Face-to-Face Communication Is a Necessary Component of Team Collaboration; the Physical Design of the Space, Including the Visibility of Workstations and the Availability of Community Spaces, Can Affect the Level of Face-to-Face Communication
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