How to Enable More Transparency at Work

In this premium insight, Melissa Marsh tackles how more transparency can increase wellness, trust, and learning at work.

The view through nine distinct company offices, continued through the exterior of the building at WeWork’s 25 Broadway location. The transparent partitions between companies bring light deeper into the floor plate and permit an awareness of the activities on the floor. The repeating mullions frame an ever-changing view through the space depending on the location of the viewer, the time of day, and the activities taking place. Photo by Kristin Mueller.

The topic of transparency is met with widely varied responses in the built environment. In workplace design, the conversation can quickly turn to negative associations with privacy and distractions. However, these concerns are not intrinsic to transparency itself. Through well-considered environments, the benefits of transparency across social and spatial realms can be realized.

Research shows that human perception of the transparency in our workplace is experienced in two key ways — through our spatial perception and our social perception (which, importantly, is a delicate balance and not a distinction between physical and non-physical). In this article, we’ll explore how to bring more transparency into your workplace.

Spatial perception: Balancing density and distance

Visual transparency can of course be accomplished through the removal of physical barriers to create completely open space. The tech-inspired movement towards open floor plans is the blunt execution of this. However, the perception of expanse or spatial openness can also be accomplished through alternate means, and tailored specifically to function. Glass partitions deliver visual transparency and an illusory continuum of space while simultaneously providing physical and moderate acoustic separation. These features of glass are already capitalized on by retail and residential spatial models. For example, writers like Walter Benjamin have speculated that the innovation of glass windows contributed to the spectacle of modern consumerism by producing the window-shopping pedestrian who admires the displayed product that one can see but can’t touch. However, glass is underexplored in the context of many working environments. The value of this perceived continuum is of profound benefit to the occupant.

Being able to see through a physical barrier diminishes the sense of its constraint. Occupants feel less “trapped”. This is particularly important in instances when many tightly placed walls are required for the separation and security of different entities, such as when several companies share the same floor plate. Furthermore, small spaces feel even smaller when the barriers between them are so strongly emphasized. This inverse relationship between desirable density and undesirable, claustrophobia-inducing spaces can be addressed through transparent design strategies.

WeWork has implemented the greatest use of transparent interior partitions at many of their locations. They house dozens of distinct companies on a single commercial floor plate. With the glass “storefront” dividers, narrow hallways visually expand to the exterior wall of the building, altering one’s sense of spatial presence. With the use of glass, insular spaces can become spaces of prospect – a first step in an intrapersonal sense of confidence and safety, much like being at the top of the mountain and aware of your surroundings. In a study of test-taking subjects by Wang and Boubekri, participants did best on cognitive tasks when they could view the door and the rest of the test room. This simple sense of control could also be causally linked to a better mood in the participants. The facilitation of having visual access to more of your work environment and choices therein has clear benefits.

The importance of occupant autonomy understandably extends to the need for acoustic and physical separation when tasks require it. In this vein, Leigh Thompson, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, states: “There is no question that physical distance creates barriers to communication. However, constant co-habitation can decrease performance, particularly when people are working on creative tasks.” Too much exposure is undesirable for heads-down work.

We also feel more comfortable and secure when our backs are protected and not exposed to people we can’t see. A study on privacy and stress conducted by Stephanie Robson has investigated the restaurant seats that are preferred and found that we like to sit with our backs against large solid objects. Transparency can occur in work environments where “refuge” is provided through carefully selected furniture arrangements, keeping consistent with this dialogue between prospect and refuge.

Social Perception: The value of seeing others

The physical path and sight lines in space have value that extends beyond just having an impact on an individual’s mood in a workplace; it also impacts interpersonal interactions and potential. For example, a workplace solution that can enable both density and visual overlap could multiply the benefits found by researchers at the University of Michigan, which showed that “a 100-foot increase in path overlap relates to significantly higher” amounts of collaborative work between individuals. Essentially, when two people’s functional zone (or the areas that they will likely visit in the course of an average workday) overlap, their workflows begin to cross-pollinate. Furthermore, an important facet to implementing glass walls in a mixed-company environment is not just about enabling collaboration within, it is preceded by something even simpler: the concept of the “familiar stranger” and its contribution to a sense of trust in the workplace.

An illustrated contrast of the perceptual extension of space and experience through the bounding walls on a corridor. An occupant's visual path is extended far beyond that which is physically accessible. Drawing by Kristin Mueller.

An illustrated contrast of the perceptual extension of space and experience through the bounding walls on a corridor. An occupant’s visual path is extended far beyond that which is physically accessible. Drawing by Kristin Mueller.

Stanley Milgram used the term “familiar strangers” to refer to people that an individual encounters repeatedly and regularly but does not actively/directly interact with. The classic example of a familiar stranger is someone that waits on the same train platform with you every morning, in clear view, but to whom you don’t speak. We recognize the faces of familiar strangers and ultimately begin to feel a bond with them, as evidenced by warm interactions when they’re encountered in an unexpected context. Contemporary studies continue to prove the relevancy of Milgram’s familiar stranger concept. For example, one recent study found that “individuals with repeated encounters . . . become strongly connected over time”. Transparent workplaces, such as glass walled offices, facilitate the creation of familiar strangers. In fact, there is evidence that people want to be seen.

Our team at PLASTARC conducted a recent study in a WeWork location where many of these transparent features are present. The team observed any modifications that occupants had made to their transparent environment. Occupants were then interviewed about these modifications and the intentions behind them. Results showed that the modifications occupants made to the transparent walls separating both their company from other companies and their company from the shared circulation path had a very low incidence of intention to obstruct views to/from strangers. People overwhelmingly chose to remain within the view of others on the floor not part of their own organization. In fact, at WeWork sites over 50 percent of members are engaged in member-to-member business.

When people feel that they are part of the same group – however they choose to define it – trust ensues. Trust is essential to individual and business performance. Trust, for example, enhances cooperation among employees. According to researchers, “One of the most important outcomes of trust between coworkers is Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB)…OCB is defined as behavior that is not directly related to the main task activity but that is important because it supports the organizational, social, and psychological context of work . . . . It is well known that OCB has a positive influence on organizational performance.” Using glass-walled enclosures could potentially increase trust among co-workers, which has positive implications for their performance.

A proliferation of visually transparent spaces increases the visibility of body language. A major stream of learning for humans comes through watching others in interactions with people and objects. Visual transparency gives us more opportunities to learn from one another. In an area with glass-walled offices people observe interactions between other workers and their teammates, using body language both to learn from interactions, and even rate probable performance. In general, in visually transparent workplaces, workers are more aware of each other’s roles and the set of environmental and interpersonal conditions in which each individual thrives.

Overlapping perceptions of transparency

Open floor plans and transparent walls are used in corporate offices and at coworking sites to symbolically communicate organizational transparency, encourage interpersonal coordination, transmit natural light through space, and provide views throughout the workplace and building exterior. Amidst this context, research has identified various cognitive and emotional consequences of working in environments where people can see/hear or be seen/heard by others. An ANFA event in 2015 shed light on the idea of neuro-architecture and understanding how our evolution and cognition have influenced our workplace behaviors and needs. This information can help us learn how to design truly smart buildings. Understanding the performance-related repercussions of working in open spaces and areas bordered by transparent glass walls more profoundly could help companies arrive at a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of their combined benefits in the workplace.

As design and our understanding of human behavior continue to evolve it is likely we will see more workplaces that are incorporating transparent features. Workplaces are beginning to be designed with human needs for collaboration, social relationships, and focus in mind. Our traditional model of the workplace with insular and distinct workspaces is being questioned. As we are recognizing the need for social learning, visibility, and trust in the workplace, transparent features are finding their market.

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