The case for designing offices more like bars

Boxed in.
Boxed in.
Image: CC0 Public Domain/Pixabay
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Why do we strike up more spontaneous conversations with people in bars than we do in the workplace? The answer isn’t alcohol—it’s the eye height you engage with people at.

In bars, the counter and stools are placed at a height that puts those sitting and standing at the same eye-level. The height of the counter and matching stools is so well established at between 40 to 42 inches that it’s known as “bar height.” Eliminating this 12-inch difference naturally engineers conversations between strangers who are now both sitting and standing face-to-face. That 12-inch difference makes casual conversations much more likely to happen. (And not just because you’re two glasses of wine into your evening.)

By this logic, in order to facilitate communication and collaboration, we should make our workplaces more like bars. Without the drinking.

Eye-to-eye, face-to-face connections are critical to workplace success; they are the basis for building common ground, trust, and facilitating the flow of ideas. Yet so many workplaces are designed to be a divided plane between those sitting, standing, and walking. When someone is sitting down, they are roughly 12 inches below the eye height of someone walking by—and this elevation segregation means everything to workplace productivity and conviviality.

History’s level playing field

This isn’t a new concept. In days of yore, when a king or queen wanted to engage with the public from their throne, they put the throne on a small platform called a dias so they could greet people at the same eye height while still sitting in their seat of power. This also prevented them from being looked down upon.

Meeting the queen may not be an everyday occurrence, but there are plenty of other situations where similar dynamics are at play. For example, locations where quick touch-down interactions between strangers are needed, such as concierge desks or trade-show kiosks, are also all at bar height, allowing for both people to interact on the same power plane.

Deep-seated feelings while standing

Face-to-face interactions increase empathy, which is a cornerstone of trusting relationships. “Patterns of face-to-face engagement and exploration within corporations were often the largest factors in both productivity and creative output,” says Sandy Pentland of MIT’s Media Lab in his book Social Physics. Neuroscience also backs up these ideas. In her book Conversational Intelligence, Judith Glasser states that when you are connecting face-to-face, “Mirror neurons are firing off, forming a bridge of insight and empathy with others.” Glasser explains that these “exchanges within our trust networks make us feel more positive, open, and closer to others…Strong bonds of trust serve up a cocktail of the brain’s feel-good natural chemicals like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin.”

Therefore, to make workers happier in both social and professional structures at work, we need to understand how to manufacture more eye-to-eye happenstances.

Do you have a minute?

Serendipitous face-to-face encounters are the underpinning for “collisionable hours,” a term coined by Zappos CEO Tony Hseih, which describes the moments people bump into each other over the course of a day. These hours lead to shared ideas and building social networks. Within the context of workplace design, collisionable spaces are typically around water coolers, coffee makers, hallways, pantries, and bathrooms. Designers sometimes take steps to generate bottlenecks in these areas, so to increase the chance of a connection between employees from different teams.

For example, Steve Jobs recognized the virtue of creating connections between teams with disparate expertise early on. “As he saw it, the main challenge for Pixar was getting its different cultures to work together, forcing the computer geeks and cartoonists to collaborate,” writes Jonah Leher in a 2011 New Yorker (paywall) article. “In typical fashion, Jobs saw this as a design problem. He began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the atrium. Then he moved the meeting rooms to the center of the building, followed by the cafeteria and the coffee bar and the gift shop. But that still wasn’t enough; Jobs insisted that the architects locate the only set of bathrooms in the atrium. (He was later forced to compromise on this detail.)”

Workplace designers often furnish collisionable spaces with lounge seating or small pods where people can meet or work. But being seated lower tends to signal being preoccupied with the task at hand, which makes you less available for spontaneous encounters. For people walking by, that 12 inches between eye heights means it’s less easy to read the sitting person’s facial cues to gauge their availability. An easy solution would be to install bar-height tables in these areas, which would situate stationary and in-motion people eye-to-eye.

“In the past ten years, standing-height tables have become ubiquitous in retail, hospitality, and certainly workplace,” says Neil Bartley, director at Studio O+A, a design firm whose clients include Facebook, Uber, and Nike. “There is something to the height segregation between sitters and standers that engenders awkward interactions, like people inadvertently sneaking up from behind or talking down to their peers.”

Despite the new ubiquity of adjustable-height sit/stand desks that can equalize eye levels between those sitting and standing, these popular structures don’t actually help create collisionable spaces in and of themselves. This is because they’re not often arranged in a pattern that is conducive to conversation. To save space and help avoid distractions, most desks face each other or face the wall instead of facing inward to a central aisle. These orientations situate the user’s backs to the flow of traffic without any way to approach the front of the desk, which blocks the same face-to-face interaction that easily happens at free-standing table near the coffee maker. Yes, sit-stand desks get more people’s heads up to traffic level—but if the user has their back turned away from you, it doesn’t present an opportunity for ad-hoc face-to-face encounters, even if they’re at the right height.

The right amount of distraction

But what if you don’t want to be invited into a spontaneous powwow? The trend toward openness and chance collisions has seen a substantial backlash, with many pundits arguing that they create an environment that is hard to focus in. For companies that want to manufacture more serendipitous collusions, how many are too many?

In Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, he argues that “focus is the new IQ in the knowledge economy, and that individuals who cultivate their ability to concentrate without distraction will thrive.” We may arrive at a new solution chitchatting with coworkers at the coffee maker or a collaborative table, but at some point, we must find a place to focus and implement that idea.

To counter this, many workplaces are now designed with open floor plans that are complemented with refuges from distraction. It’s hard for one type of space to be all things to all people, so creating a variety of spaces that workers can move between during their day is a popular solution.

But creating places of refuge that can simultaneously perform as eye-to-eye social hubs are more rare. Furniture manufacturers are addressing this seemingly contradictory problem by manufacturing multipurpose pods that can adapt to their users’ changing needs. Herman Miller’s Exclave products utilize the bar-height 12-inch advantage, while their Public Office Landscape collection fuses lounge and collaboration possibilities directly into the personal space of workstations at sitting height. Furniture manufacturer Hayworth’s openest and Allermuir’s Haven are also creating pods for personal use that can be adapted to receive guests or hold small meetings. Some are even making booths with roofs, such as Spacestor’s Railway Carriage pods. Personally, I have been applying my research to the Krivens Pod, which is a patent-pending indoor/outdoor pod for both refuge and engagement. It has an elevated interior for working that is, you guessed it, 12-inches high, and also includes a walk-up corner bar for face-to-face social engagement. The first versions are currently being tested onsite at Genentech’s HQ in San Francisco.

We need our furniture to be as adaptable as we are; a transparent armor that protects us without ever getting in the way of inspired times. Our workplace furniture should therefore take advantage of the social power of face-to-face interactions. And all it takes is 12 inches.