Behavior calming in offices and prisons
Prisons are built as a reflection of society’s current attitude towards prisoners. We imprison for punishment in one decade and imprison for rehabilitation in another. Prison designs reflect the politician’s rhetoric or the prisoner’s perceived status as fallible human or evil scourge. However from time to time, there are prisons that are thoughtfully built around the security of the staff and focused on behavior calming techniques. I find it interesting how many of those techniques are common to good organizational structure.
The Falkenburg Road Prison in Tampa Florida was built between 1998 and 2003 with significant staff input in order to create a safer and better functioning facility. The first strategic decision was to utilize what is known as direct supervision. In direct supervision, the guards are placed inside the containment area for inmates. With indirect supervision, guards are located in what is usually a glassed in structure with a view to the inmates but are separated. Criminologist Norman Johnston did a series of research studies looking at both violent and non-violent behavior issues. He found that direct supervision with face to face interaction of guards and inmates, significantly improved all categories of non-violent behavior. He also found that it positively impacted some categories of violent behavior including reduction in the incidence of rape and in violence associated with trafficking. The social bond that is created when any two humans interact directly had a positive impact on behavior. Might this be why MBWA (management by walking around) works so well?
The second strategic decision was to create nested groups. The prison is laid out so that 4 inmates sleep in a group dormitory style separated from adjacent groups by a half high wall. There are 4 of those sleeping groups in each alcove of the room and one alcove on each side. So instead of an inmate being one person in a group of 64, each inmate is part of a small group of 4, which is part of a medium group of 16, which is part of a larger group of 64 all arranged around a common living area that includes a direct observation guard station. There are 9 buildings that have this arrangement and a tenth that has solitary cells that are used as punishment for behavior issues. According to American Jails magazine, this layout has been very successful.
Sociologists and Anthropologists have observed for years that nested group size increases peer pressure to conform to behavioral norms within the group. So by arranging the prison layout in this manner, the Falkenburg Road Facility uses the natural behavior patterns of the inmates to raise the base level of behavior resulting in fewer overall behavior problems.
This same strategy of nested groups can be applied to the office, resulting in strengthening of social ties and therefore increase in trust, retention, engagement, and common purpose. If a business moves from a traditional cellular layout to fully open office without considering group size, it can be the equivalent of an undifferentiated prison yard, each person one among many without the nested structure that is so necessary for the social bonding that drives more aligned behavior.
What cubicles naturally provide is connection to an aisle and all of the cubicles on that aisle become a de-facto group whether intentional or not. In contrast, when you look across a sea of open office desk-tables, you loose the nested group structure. However, what cubicles do naturally can be created intentionally with a modification to a typical open office. This will allow you to get the collaboration benefits but retain the nested group structure. If the open office workstations are clearly grouped in roughly 6-8 people to create family size peer groups, and those groups have some distinct partial or full separation from the next group, then those groups are combined into sets of about 24 people with shared common areas and amenities, and then those sets are combined into departments of no more than 150 (Dunbar’s number), and then departments are multiplied as needed to build out the organization, then the business can begin to use strategies of nested group social bond and peer pressure to create alignment, increase engagement, and provide results.
I find it quite interesting that the floor plans of the most recent Google offices in Zurich and Dublin, have open plan rooms each fitting roughly 6-10 desks. I don’t know for a fact that those smaller versions of a full open offices are then combined into 24 and then into 150, but just from that floor plan feature, I suspect that someone is paying attention.
Footnote: This blog was picked up by the Wall Street Journal and turned into an excellent article by Adam Auriemma, Deputy Management Bureau Chief (formerly managing editor of the Daily Beast). See the WSJ article here: