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  Thursday, January 27, 2005

  Social visibility at work

While finding my way in our new office building I'm thinking about social visibility in a slightly new context - how physical layout of the building influences chance encounters.

Our old office had a pretty simple structure: 3,5 T-shaped floors with long corridors connected by shorter T-"leg". Long corridors had offices along, stairs and coffee tables at both ends, meeting rooms more or less in the middle where they were also connected with the "leg" connecting another stairs and set of meeting rooms via a huge hall with sidewalks running through all floors.

That building had pretty nice social effects:

  • just looking along the long corridor you could see who is in the office (we usually keep doors open) or who is there for a coffee - nice no-tech way to gain "presence awareness" :)
  • to walk to others you would have to walk to the corridor end, passing all other office rooms on the floor and coffee tables, so you could see you is there and occasionally engage into conversations or just exchange greetings
  • walking to one of the bigger meeting rooms in the middle or at the tower you would walk through the side-walks of the big hall, so you could see people at other floors walking to meeting rooms and they could see you
  • walking along long corridors wasn't that fun, but given that most of the people had to walk the same way it was more about meeting, greeting and ad-hoc conversations then about "sightseeing" on the way

Our new building is different. Social spaces between offices are bigger, more colorful and architecturally it's more fun to walk around, but I'm not sure that it's well-constructed for ad-hoc social exchanges:

  • there are two sets of stairs in the middle of 3 floors, which leaves quite some offices in "dead ends", which no one passes through unless going directly there
  • each floor has a complex structure with multiple ways of walking, so people don't see all the way along and walk different routes (usually shortest from their offices)
  • coffee tables are in the middle, but they have semi-closed walls around, so you don't see who is there unless you are almost there (so there is a webcam at one of them for people to see without walking ;)

I guess all these results in a few things:

  • less unobrtusive "presence" cues that can help to locate people you may want to talk
  • less chance encounters while walking around
  • different social visibility of people when they are in their offices - ones next to stairs and coffee-table hallways get everyone else (also dogs :) passing their doors and ones in "dead ends" have a very quiet and invisible life (which of course is nice for writing papers, but not that fun socially

I wonder how all these changes will influence social practices around work. Could be an interesting case to study changes in social networks, coffee-table habits or uses of technology for communication (e.g. how IM use patterns change).

More on: presense space transparency 

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© Copyright 2002-2005 Lilia Efimova.

This weblog is my learning diary. Sometimes I write about things related to my work, but the views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

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