With an increased focus on flexible working practices, employers need to be conscious of creating an environment which enhances learning, creativity and knowledge transfer so when teams do come together, they are in the best environment to achieve maximum results.
In the latest of our articles with academic leaders, we talk to Dr Harriet Shortt, Associate Professor and Dr Selen Kars, Senior Lecturer from Bristol Business School, at the University of the West of England, about how an organisation structures it’s work, breakout and functional spaces and how these can positively impact knowledge transfer and idea generation.
Everyday life at work includes solving problems together, acknowledging people have different skills, expertise, experiences and ideas, and learning how best to exploit these in order to advance organisational objectives. Indeed, it could be argued that knowledge is what makes organisations tick. But the problem is that knowledge often sits in the heads of individual employees, and if it stays there it’s worthless. So, what can organisations do to improve knowledge transfer? The answer could lie in the organisation of space.
Most of our organisational interactions are routinised. The way work spaces are often organised means that employees typically relate and interact with a small circle of people. Despite open-plan office designs and spatial configurations that encourage people working in the same department or project team to be co-located, interaction patterns are often socially and spatially constrained. Daily interactions occur with colleagues who are sitting on average between only 18 and 25 metres away from us . In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal article reports similarly; there is only 5-10% chance that we will interact with someone only two desk-rows away from where we sit! 
However, if you provide temporary, transitory spaces for conversations this provides opportunities for individuals to be exposed to new stimuli and new ideas. For example, international hearing aid producer Oticon replaced the elevators at their headquarters in Denmark with a central spiral staircase that was wide enough to permit chance encounters. Similarly, Pixar’s US headquarters are designed in a way that allows employees to have informal, chance meetings with colleagues all over the organisation, and having one cafeteria for over 1,200 employees was a deliberate choice. Steve Jobs is, infamously, said to suggest only one restroom for the whole company with the same idea in mind; although, luckily, he was later convinced to invest in one on each floor.
Whether you encourage people meet for coffee on a staircase, at lunch, or in the restroom, the idea is that regular, informal, chance meetings are an effective way of instigating knowledge transfer between employees and create a breeding ground for new knowledge creation through collaboration.
This is something that our research has revealed over the past decade – particularly with regards to ‘liminal’ spaces. Recent research by Iedema and colleagues has shown, for example, how the corridors of hospitals have a learning function – this ‘ad hoc’ environment is where doctors, nurses and trainees engage in conversations, teach, learn and exchange knowledge. This is because corridors are ‘liminal’ spaces, meaning they are transitory, ‘in-between’ the formal spaces of an organisation, and lack the formality of defined spaces like ‘a meeting room’. Because of this people feel more comfortable asking questions or testing out ideas there, as there is a sense of freedom from organisational constraints and expectations. Harriet’s research exposes similar findings and suggests that it is the liminal spaces at work that provide vital sites for employees to seek and find inspiration and creativity – the toilets, corridors and stairwells are ‘transitory dwelling places’ that momentarily offer a ‘no man’s land’ where, for example, formal power dynamics appear to evaporate.
But if you want to inject some ‘formality’ there are alternative options. Selen’s research with a medium-sized company, with a limited budget for employee training and development, saw the organisation introduce ‘lunch and learn’ sessions. These sessions were held in the busy cafeteria area, where interested employees gathered around a big table to learn about new products, a new process or practice they needed to follow. An open, transitory space like this may not be your first choice for a venue when you design a training event but think about the multiplier effect you could create - passers-by overhearing discussions, deciding to sit down or stand for a while, and taking new knowledge with them when they leave.
Many have argued that physical proximity positively influences social relationships, friendships among colleagues and, in turn, job satisfaction. Indeed, Harriet’s recent publication on eating cake in the office highlights some of these points. In a study of spatial interactions in a large open-plan UK Government office, she found that - again, against organisational conventions - what really got people moving beyond the 18-25 metre mark, was the sharing and brandishing of cakes and biscuits at the end of long shared desks. The combination of cake and an open-plan office encouraged these temporary pockets of space to be socially created in the corridors and walkways between desks, and for social relationships and knowledge transfer to really flourish.
So, although we may find the familiarity of constrained social and spatial interactions at times rather comforting, if we don’t travel more than 20 metres on a typical work day to talk with our colleagues, we need to remember this severely limits the insights, ideas, and experiences we’re potentially subjected to. The liminal, in-between spaces not only allow for different relationships to be built across knowledge frontiers, but they can also facilitate shared learning processes where employees communicate knowledge, challenge practices and support knowledge creation, experimentation and innovation.
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 Sailer, K. and Penn, A. (2009) Spatiality and transpatiality in workplace environments. In: Koch, D. and Marcus, L. and Steen, J., (eds.) Proceedings of the 7th International Space Syntax Symposium. Royal Institute of Technology (KTH): Stockholm, Sweden. Available from: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/15303/
 Feintzeig, R. (2013) The New Science of Who Sits Where at Work, Wall Street Journal, 8 October. Available from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/no-headline-available-1381261423
 Iedema R, Long D and Carroll K (2012) Corridor communication, spatial design and patient safety: Enacting and managing complexities. In: Van Marrewijk A and Yanow D (eds) Organizational Spaces: Rematerializing the Workaday World. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 41–57.
 Shortt, H. (2015) Liminality, space and the importance of ‘transitory dwelling places’ at work. Human Relations, 68 (4). pp. 633-658. Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/26742
 See Eric Sundstrom’s work for a more extensive discussion of this. Sundstrom, E. (1986) Work Places: The Psychology of the Physical Environment in Offices and Factories. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Shortt, H. (2017) Cake and the open plan office: A foodscape of work through a Lefebvrian lens. In: Kingma, S. , Dale, K. and Wasserman, V. (eds.) Organizational Space and Beyond: The significance of Henri Lefebvre for organizational studies. London: Routledge. [In Press] Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/31539 '