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How choice architecture nudges organizational behavior with activity-based design

10/6/17 11:20 AM

Activity based spaces with different types of seating areas for various activities, such as collaboration or working alone, can be used in offices and schools, for example.  Designing spaces to subtly cue us towards certain everyday choices is called nudging.
Spaces can be designed to encourage certain types of behavior, such as individual work or collaboration.

Choice architecture is used to help nudge us to behave in certain ways – in the workplace, too, where the aim usually is to optimize organizational effectiveness and well-being. 

Have you ever noticed how different spaces can affect the way you feel, think and behave? How in one space the visual cues suggest you keep on moving, speaking loudly or multitasking, whereas another prompts you to whisper and to be in the moment? A train station can feel restless and cold, your local café calm, intimate and warm. You’ve surely been aware of these nuances, but have you ever thought that these spaces were, perhaps, intentionally designed that way?

Designing spaces to subtly cue us towards certain everyday choices is called nudging.

Commercial retailers, grocery stores and restaurants have employed this choice architecture successfully for ages to boost sales. You may think you're making your own choices, but in fact the store shelving, positioning of the salad table, plate size, etc., have been carefully planned to nudge you towards the “right” decisions.

What can we learn from this, to translate it for office or learning environments?

Understanding activities and work modes is paramount

The key is to take a look at activities, and the gaps between current and desired behaviors. Understanding how an organization works helps to understand the entire spectrum of needs people typically have, as they transition between tasks and spaces throughout the workday. By observing people in their workspaces, you can gain an understanding of how and if the spaces encourage, support and facilitate the kinds of desired behaviors that improve both individual and collective learning, communication and effectiveness – and what kinds of behaviors are typical and should be supported or discouraged further.

For instance, both education and knowledge work have increasingly moved away from linear process-like activities towards interactive problem-solving, technology-aided co-creation and network-based project work. This is, however, only a generalization, as all organizations have their differing cultures, objectives, resources, curriculums and strategies. What is typical or works for one, may not work for another.

There are, however, some general activities that typically can be observed in almost any working environment. It is just a question of finding out what the current “behavioral DNA” of the organization is, and to compare it to the desired mix of activities and behaviors you want to see and support. Some key questions to consider when looking at behaviors are: why, what, how, where, when and with whom?

  • Why should people for example communicate or focus more? Is there a known connection to better learning and innovation or higher productivity? What do you want to achieve?
  • What are people actually doing?
  • How are they doing it: face-to-face or over video and phone?
  • Are some spaces more used for one activity than another? Is there a mismatch between spaces and user needs?
  • Are certain times of the day, week or year different?
  • How large are the groups typically taking part in the activity, are space dimensions optimized?
Choice architects create zones for different work modes. A quiet corner area is well-suited for concentrating or recharging.
Workspaces can subtly encourage a specific work mode, such as informally working alone - but together.

Create mix of spaces to match your organization's needs

Once you understand which activities need to be facilitated and supported, and why - you can begin to map out the right mix of spaces that matches those specific needs. Typically, in an office setting they are a blend of the following working modes:

  • Working alone - private working spaces, focus rooms and phone booths for work that requires privacy (calling, contemplating, concentrating)
  • Working alone among others – designed and fixed work stations for specialist solo work with special requirements, generic work stations for generic solo work, and hot desks and drop-down seats for ad hoc solo work with minimal work setting needs (e.g. table or chair, electricity and Wi-Fi-connectivity).
  • Working together with others – supported by a mix of conference and meeting space, group learning space, huddle space, breakout space etc.
  • Working with tools, machinery and other special attributes – supported by task-specific spaces (copy rooms, laboratories, workshops, project space, gyms, locker and storage space etc.).

Similar work mode logic applies in learning environments for a variety of different learning approaches, such as problem-based, inquiry-based, collaborative, active, peer, reflective, community-based and experimental learning. Spaces and places that support these behaviors can typically have different degrees of noise levels, codes of conduct, assignment of fixed “ownership”, and ability to have overlapping functionalities for multiple uses (which significantly can increase the utilization frequency of the space).

Zoning converts task-specific spaces into an activity-based environment

In addition to individual spaces, skilled choice architects look at the overall layout of the floor plan, creating internal mobility and people flow within the building. Their aim is to encourage chance encounters that spur exchange of information and a sense of community. They also try to create home base areas with zones for different work modes, such as: 

  • concentrating (focusing, contemplating, reflecting, writing, calculating, researching)
  • collaborating (meeting space, negotiation, group learning, problem solving)
  • creating (co-creation, experimentation, maker space, creative space)
  • communicating (chatting, calling)
  • connecting (socializing, networking, break-out)
  • charging (recharging, eating, drinking, resting the mind, refreshing, chilling out)
  • commuting (transition and connection spaces)

Base your own workplace designs on organization-specific information

For example, in our recently published Optimaze Workplace Review 2016, we found that people spend about a third of their time at the office working with others, typically in meetings of four people or less (66% of all meetings). Such small groups were observed occupying large meeting rooms (designed for 5-9 people) 57% of the time, and even extra large meeting rooms (for 16 people or more) 37% of the time. In this light, meeting room sizes appear to be misaligned and too big. These are, of course, only general, indicative averages. Design your own workplace based on your organization’s needs. With a proper space utilization and work activity diagnosis, you’ll have key, company-specific facts to work with.

Record your work activities and space use at the same time

Optimaze Measure is a software that collects information regarding work activities and group sizes, filtered by specific locations, seat type and much more while collecting valuable data on space utilization. This flexible online tool allows you to define and observe any type of activity and behavior you consider important to measure – using only a tablet and internet connection. For instance, you may be interested in recording and quantifying activities such as “heads-down work”, telephoning, skyping, face-to-face discussion, meeting and so on in an office setting.

Similarly, in a school environment you might be keen to observe learning activities such as:

  • group work and working in pairs
  • presentations and demos
  • learning-by-doing and experimenting
  • field work and remote learning
  • lectures
  • assisted learning and coaching
  • role play and debate
  • individual learning (reading, writing, e-learning, information search etc.).

If you are interested in doing your own work activity observations and work culture audit, space utilization studies and workplace surveys or simply obtaining the executive summary of the Optimaze Workplace Review, please contact Rapal Oy or Optimaze, Inc. (United States and Canada) for further information.

Pontus Kihlman

Written by Pontus Kihlman

Head of Business Development & Executive Consultant, Workplace Insights, Optimaze | Rapal