This article appeared in the fall issue of Urban Land on page 162.
The new Boston Consulting Group (BCG) workplace at New York City’s 10 Hudson Yards (Urban Land, May/June 2017) has a lofty purpose: “to provide an environment that fosters brilliant, diverse, passionate people to connect and cultivate ideas that shape the future,” according to Ross Love, BCG’s managing partner for New York. The design is based on the premise that social interactions among such people spark the imagination and foster personal relationships to sustain an organization and accelerate its performance.
The 10 Hudson Yards (10HY) project exemplifies the nomadic workplace and its appeal to a 21st-century workforce. BCG employees wander through the office with their ideas and devices, perch anywhere, run into others, and capture thoughts and findings as they move. As in nature, people interact in countless ways until they reach tipping points, enabling them to achieve insights or discover solutions to complex problems. The fusion of personal and social space compresses the time and intellectual distance from discovery and inspiration to documentation and client delivery.
The firm’s creative spark results in part from chance encounters—or collisions—in such an environment that animate individual and team performance, says Love. The workplace becomes an incubator of ideas that transform client organizations—and, prospectively, professional life itself.
BCG’s “collision coefficient” (CC) measures the number and timing of interactions to predict which design configurations generate the most creative activity. Collisions are quick—personal interactions that last 15 minutes or less. The CC is the average number of collisions per person per day.
The CC model, similar to retail foot-traffic models, is based on working assumptions—now confirmed with real-time data—to identify individual and team locations, teamwork patterns, and job functions. These metrics, amplified by amount of “focus time” and related analytics, will help designers and managers understand the impact of alternative designs, operations, and technologies on employee behaviors, such as cooperation and engagement, and, in turn, on the organization’s mission.
From Art to Science
Before moving to Hudson Yards, BCG used conventional design techniques to define the trade-offs beyond “open” and “closed” spaces—for example, by examining space use surveys; mapping assigned versus unassigned spaces, individual versus collaborative space, and work versus social space; and assessing personal versus group amenities. The internal real estate and operations team simulated collision patterns manually by comparing alternative floor plans for BCG’s two former office spaces on Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan with its prospective plans for innovations at 10HY.
To infuse science into the art of workplace design, BCG engaged Humanyze, a people analytics firm based in Boston. Humanyze was founded by social and computer scientists in the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to address vexing questions about organizational behavior, social networks, and information flow. The company invented a communications sensory badge that is worn anonymously by study participants to identify their functions and measure the frequency, duration, and location of their contacts.
The charter for Humanyze was to quantify the impact of BCG’s significant investment in 10HY on its ways of working, its objectives for collaboration, and its staff workloads, all in comparison with those elements at its former Midtown offices and with designers’ proposals for the benefits and risks of different office types.
Love directed a study team that included a BCG project leader and six Humanyze principals and data scientists. Using Humanyze badges that register audio “pings” of voices but do not record the content of conversations, the team aimed to gather accurate data on consultants’ locations as they moved around the office; where, when, and with whom they were talking; and their team’s proximity and speech characteristics. In the study setup, the team was scrupulous to protect privacy and personal space. They also intended to compare the data with self-reported metrics.
Analyses of face-to-face and email networks, time allocations, and cross-team communications were framed to inform design decisions on space uses, adjacencies, and process optimization. In Humanyze’s experience, a viable study required voluntary participation by at least 15 percent of the organization. Accordingly, BCG screened its entire New York office of nearly 800 consultants and support staff, invited a representative sample of 200 people to participate, and came up with 115 volunteers—well above the number needed.
The team performed scores of discrete analyses over a two-phase, 16-week period. Initial findings revealed that collisions increased 19 percent in the new workplace compared with the Park Avenue spaces. The detailed data confirmed most of BCG’s original hypotheses about the new office design, but also yielded some counterintuitive surprises.
Four key takeaways for decision makers emerged from the BCG pilot study.
Mobility. The new workplace led to a sharp increase in collisions, with greater diversity in the contacts’ functional affiliations and sources of knowledge.
The percentage of face-to-face interactions during the four-month pilot period nearly doubled in the new workplace compared with the original Park Avenue space. Furthermore, more than half of those interactions were between people outside each other’s immediate, assigned teams. This constitutes a profound indicator that employees in the open, fluid workplace have greater access to diverse sources of knowledge and ideas—the intellectual lifeblood of a high-performing, knowledge-driven consulting firm—compared with their peers in traditional spaces.
Moreover, junior-level consultants at 10HY now have greater interaction with and visibility to senior-level leaders who offer experience and skill in solving problems as well as guidance in shaping attitudes.
These findings dovetail with those from studies showing that workers who physically move more than others throughout their workday have a higher sense of well-being and engagement, relate positively to variety in their daily work, and improve their access to diverse opportunities.
Focus. Collisions result in fewer long meetings—those of 15 minutes or more—for most staff. Thus, the new workspace enables more agile ways of working, more fluid communications, and greater knowledge transfer.
Yet, a second consequence of increased collisions, and an unexpected finding of the pilot, is that staff overall have 13 percent less focus time—20 minutes less per day—during which they can concentrate on their individual work. Even more challenging, senior leaders have 60 percent less focus time for themselves, losing over an hour per day.
This reflects the fundamental trade-off between the greater access that junior-level employees have to senior leaders in the open, free-form workplace but reduced focus time for all. The increase in quick interactions, combined with less time spent in long meetings, pairs with the increased availability of social space and the new, informal, impromptu meeting culture. Even a moderate increase in everyone’s visibility in the space disproportionately affects the time of senior leaders as the smallest but most influential group.
Correspondingly, other employee surveys show that those with greater access to their organization’s leaders are more likely to feel that their work matters and understand how they contribute to achievement of their organization’s goals.
Simultaneously, in the BCG pilot, the digital workload—the time spent in scheduled meetings as well as in electronic communications—has increased, with some 30 extra minutes spent per day in meetings and exchanging email. This finding is consistent with research showing that an increase in the number of face-to-face collaborations leads to increased email volume.
Cohesiveness. The new workspace fosters a more cohesive organization for creating and sharing knowledge.
Cohesion is a quantitative measure of how tightly knit an organization is. Shorter pathways for information to travel between individuals and teams improve the potential for agility and learning based on new information and new programs initiated by the organization. The metric for cohesion is degrees of separation.
Among all BCG’s functional practice groups at 10HY, the degree of separation has been reduced by 18 percent. The individual and team networks in one functional group are more tightly knit: their face-to-face cohesion in the new space increased nearly 300 percent. Correspondingly, the internal face-to-face interactions have increased more than 25 percent.
Another measure of collaboration and cohesion is centrality—the gaps bridged by individuals, highlighting their importance to others who depend on them or who are driven by them, as well as the bottlenecks they might unintentionally create.
Surveys show that centrality is more distributed at the new workspace than at BCG’s previous Park Avenue space: the average face-to-face interactions of the five most central individuals dropped by 35 percent, meaning the organization is that much less reliant on them and that they are less burdened in terms of time and effort than in the former location.
Other surveys show that those in more cohesive networks are significantly more likely to report high engagement, trust, commitment, and collegial support. All of these attitudes are attributed to a desirable workplace.
Space use. Open spaces are by far the most commonly used spaces by BCG consultant teams, accounting for an average of 53 percent of the participants’ time spent at 10HY.
A central premise of the workspace design was to decouple staff from assigned workspaces, which was enabled by advanced space-scheduling software; open, flexible layouts; fungible furnishings; and performance-enhancing fixtures.
In particular, individual offices, though intended mainly for use by senior staff, were designed and furnished for instant, seamless conversion and use by small consulting case teams when not otherwise occupied. During the pilot, the convertible offices were used primarily by the consumer and financial services teams; other functional area teams used the many, varied open spaces for their short conversations and brainstorming.
The study data showed that the new workplace has encouraged staff to spend an additional 15 minutes per day in the office, and produced a 30 percent increase in physical activity within the office, which is consistent with research demonstrating positive links between physical activity and creative problem solving, and between workplace mobility and positive job attitudes.
In a related study commissioned by BCG, nearly 50 percent of the staff assigned to 10HY say they spend one to three more days in the office each week than they did before; satisfaction with the communal areas has increased 12-fold, and more than fivefold for the various workspace types. A revealing finding: quick interactions in the open spaces increased by 56 percent.
These findings validate the original design thesis—that 10HY would foster increased collisions by providing a high percentage of open and collaborative spaces and a mobility-inducing layout. Collisions occur more frequently and are more pronounced in open spaces and are closely timed with physical movement. A parallel internal survey showed that nearly half the staff believes that the new office enables higher productivity than did the old.
These study results complement recent academic evidence showing that collisions produce new insights, accelerate learning, and energize teamwork. Yet to be determined is whether BCG consultants produce richer, more creative content through longer discussions when they collide.
In short, the collision coefficient—21.7 after the move to 10HY, compared with 18.2 for the former Midtown space, a 19 percent increase—is a new threshold in designing an organization’s workplace and infrastructure for effective collaboration and communication. Because conventional office design is often trapped by its own mythology and unvalidated beliefs about the effectiveness and use of different office types, the importance of the coalition coefficient cannot be overstated: it adds a high-value layer of analytical rigor to often subjective decisions on space purposes and uses, individual and functional adjacencies, and even a building’s aesthetics.
Sandy Apgar, a real estate management consultant, is a ULI trustee and ULI Foundation governor. He has been affiliated with BCG since 2002. The author acknowledges the assistance of Ben Groom of BCG and Jeremy Doyle of Humanyze in his interpretations of the research cited in this article.