Avoiding ‘the fourth wall’ effect of open plan offices – optimising collaboration

By Elisabeth Goodman, 11th December 2019

People use ‘the fourth wall’ in open plan offices to create ‘public solitude’

The 18th -century French philosopher, Denis Diderot, came up with the concept of ‘the fourth wall’ for performers on a stage.  He guided them to “imagine a huge wall across the front of the stage, separating you from the audience, and behave exactly as if the curtain had never risen.”

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber cite the philosopher in their HBR article “The truth about open offices” (November-December 2019, pp. 82-91).  They liken what he describes to ‘public solitude’.

Anyone working in an open-plan office will recognise what the authors describe as strategies used to avoid interaction and increase individual ‘solitude’:

  • avoiding eye contact
  • discovering an immediate reason to walk away
  • becoming so engrossed in their tasks as to be ‘selectively deaf’
  • using headphones to cut our distractions or appear engrossed
  • ignoring the phone, e-mail or other digital messages

The result can be an actual drop rather than an increase in collaboration as a result of open plan environments.

The authors make the important point that “people decide, individually and collectively, when to interact” – so that work-place architecture alone will not drive collaborative behaviour.  In fact they cite some studies carried out by themselves and a former student (Stephen Turban) which showed that face-to-face interactions dropped by about 70% after the firms in question transitioned to open plan offices.

Strategies to increase collaboration

Bernstein and Waber emphasise that companies need to decide what form of collaboration they would like, and then use a range of strategies to help with achieving this.

These strategies include:

1. Be clear about what level and type of collective behaviour you want – and then reinforce it

Bernstein and Waber suggest that leaders should decide what kind of culture they want in terms of collective behaviour:

  • Is it one that values more individual work where distractions would adversely affect productivity?
  • Or is it one where they want more interactions that will support collaborative work?

Once leaders are clear about what behaviours they want, this will determine the culture they want to create.  This should then be woven into every aspect of the teams working practices: roles and responsibilities, objectives, expectations for how people carry out their tasks, team meetings and communications….as well as physical locations.

2. Use proximity

The authors quote three other studies that they were involved with.  Between them these studies showed that:

  • People within a team were six times as likely to interact if they were on the same floor
  • People on different teams were nine times as likely to interact if they were on the same floor
  • Where one company had several buildings on a campus, just 10% of their communications occurred between employees whose desks were more than 500 metres apart
  • Remote workers communicated nearly 80% less about their work than colocated team members did; in 17% of projects they did not communicate at all.

Their conclusions: if you want people to communicate, interact and collaborate more, they need to be colocated, in the same building, and ideally on the same floor.

3. Use events to bring people together

People have long known that team events can help team members to get to know each other better and promote greater interaction.

The challenge though can be to find the right kind of event that will appeal to everyone and be considerate of their commitments outside of work.

Bernstein and Waber remind us that internal events organised during working hours, such as workshops could also be effective.

RiverRhee delivers training, workshops and one-to-one coaching in range of management and team member skills

Our own experience, at RiverRhee, of running internal training courses on ‘soft’ people-related skills for team members and managers has shown that they can be tremendously effective at building greater understanding and collaboration.

4. Locate coffee machines and other eating / drinking facilities in strategic positions!

We know that people will tend to congregate around coffee or other drinks machines.

The authors quote a company that places jars of biscuits on the desks of new starters and provides a map showing where the jars are located to encourage people to stop by and meet them.

Another company, Humanyze, deliberately places coffee machines in locations where they want to promote greater collaboration: in the centre of a team area, or between two teams.

5. Measure the effectiveness of different approaches for promoting collaboration

There is a big emphasis in the HBR article on the use of technology to detect and analyse communication patterns in teams or organisations.  In fact some of the findings cited in this blog are based on such studies.

The technology used can include:

  • Sensors in chairs, in the floor, or in wearable technologies to monitor people’s movements and face-to-face interactions
  • Collecting digital data on meeting bookings, email, the use of chat tools, telephones etc.

This kind of measurement obviously raises questions about people’s privacy, so that they would need to understand and agree with the purpose of such studies.

The authors cite further completed and ongoing studies in the article, by Mori Building, GlaxoSmithKline, and a major US financial institution, which have shown real benefits of using technology to measure and increase collaboration.


Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.) Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis. RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus.

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

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