How do open offices affect social structuring at work?

How do open offices affect social structuring at work?

The UK has more than twice as many open plan workers than the global average. Almost half of UK workers (49%) are based in open plan offices compared to 23% globally. In research on territoriality, open plan offices are referred to as “non-territorial offices”. This implies that there is no territorial behaviour in open plan offices, but is that true?

We often associate territorial behaviour with animals, but territoriality exists within human groups as well. In humans, this is expressed as ‘a set of behaviours and cognitions a person or groups exhibits based on perceived ownership of space’[1]. For example – building a small front garden fence, graffiti, or leaving a coat on the chair.

There are different types of territories, namely primary, secondary, and public. These categories are based on the level of personalisation and the likelihood of a user defending the territory. Offices used to be classed as “primary” territory due to high ownership and personalisation of workspaces, akin to homes. Nowadays, the office is shifting towards secondary territory, as ownership of space in open plan offices reduces. For example, 17% of UK workers, and 8% of workers globally, do not have a fixed location in the office due to hot-desking or nomadic working. Territoriality applies to more than just space; other aspects at work such as roles, tasks, relationships, ideas, products and time all impact on people’s territorial behaviour.

Some organisations perceive territorial behaviour as negative because it can obstruct knowledge sharing and decision-making. However, territoriality has some important functions. Firstly, it can help to control stimuli, such as noise and visual distractions – closing a door or creating boundaries can help us avoid over-stimulation. Territorial behaviour also allows us to express identity and organise social structures through clarification of roles, social status and hierarchy. We adapt our behaviour based on who is around us and adjust our behaviours per our social environment. For example, when we know who is in charge of teams, it helps us to coordinate our activities accordingly. Similarly, we might behave differently when we are near senior management workspaces.

In a modern open-plan office, where spatial territorial characteristics are minimised through organisational rules, such as clear desk policies, non-allocated space, and lack of private offices, what happens to social structuring? Qualitative research shows that people in non-territorial offices turn to interpersonal interaction and in-role behaviour, such as giving orders and making decisions, to clarify social structuring. But what happens in places where people have not had any prior interaction? Research indicates that people form judgements about social structures through quick observation. So, if this cannot be made through space nor through interaction in the open work environment, do stereotype-based judgements (such as gender, age and appearance) become more salient?

Have a look around in your work environment… How do you know who is the leader? How do you know who to go to for decisions? Should we take measures to clarify social structures in open plan offices, e.g. implementation of leadership tables? In my next blog post, I’ll take a deeper dive into this topic and will look at how colleagues organise social structures in an environment where they do not necessarily know all the teams around them.


ramona-verheesRamona Verhees is a consultant at AECOM’s Strategy Plus practice in London




[1] Bell, P. A., Greene, T., Fisher, J. D., & Baum, A. (2001). Environmental Psychology. Fort Worth, Tex; Belmont, Calif: Harcourt College Publishers.



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