I always had this claustrophobic feeling whenever I visited the office during my early career days. I used to feel that the aspect of employee engagement was totally missing. I had moved from a college/school environment where there are long benches to sit on with your friends and peers to share, learn and understand various topics. The classroom was the only primary identity, and we were free to sit where we wanted and with whom we wanted – till we reached a comfort zone of sitting with a friend.
The office environment was so different. Working in a creative field of IT, we were the “knowledge workers” and were expected to continue to share, learn and understand various customer needs and its technological and managerial challenges.
But I was sitting in a cubicle, with artificial partitions around me. Now, how do I continue to share and learn when we are at every moment, driven up a wall?
The only way I was able to overcome my phobia was to constantly move to various “walled areas” or ensure that I do not sit at my desk for more than an hour at a time or by taking small breaks from work.
Subtle but dangerous realisation
I discovered that there were less and fewer ideas or engaging talks. Most of these were limited to what transpired in meeting rooms or during break time. I also noticed that people tend to forget the finer details of what was discussed once they are out of the room or the break area.
This got me wondering about what exactly is happening to us “knowledge workers” and why we are unable to remember simple things the same way we spoke in meeting rooms. This, I observed resulted in lower coordination and employee engagement.
Doorway Effect Phenomenon
There are numerous research, articles, videos that explain the aspect of the doorway effect and how it impacts us, humans.
Let me try to simplify it here –
Our brain stores memory in a certain way – similar to that of pages in a book. Each of these pages is like episodes of memory that is retained within a certain “event boundary”. A new page is a new memory episode with a new event boundary.
So, we form spatial boundaries to help remember things, and once we move out of one such boundary to the other, there is a natural tendency of the brain to assimilate new information and act as per that. This is a primal functioning of the brain to protect us from stress or danger due to sudden changes.
More on the Doorway Effect has been explained here.
Now, with the explosion of technology, various models of execution of projects, etc. , we as humans have created many such physical and virtual boundaries. For some, a boundary can be an event like going home or getting into a car or getting into a meeting room.
I have also observed that for many, cubicles in office serve as such event boundaries and allows for people to act and behave in a certain manner.
This phenomenon has been impacting us in both positive and negative ways.
For a positive example, if one looks at a process diagram, there are all boxes or shapes with inputs and outputs. Whatever happens in that shape should lead to a specific output. Meetings are designed to have a specific output.
This is also true if you look at frameworks, models, approaches like CMMI, ITIL, Agile, Design Thinking, etc., there is always an expected important output.
Each of the steps or areas or stages are like these event boundaries that helps in the segregation of tasks and allow for specific inputs and outputs.
For a negative example, if you look at the aspect of today’s schools – which is supposed to encourage our future to think tall and broad, every class has a room and a boundary. The kids are supposed to remember beyond the class on what was told and what the inputs and outputs were. This aspect, of course, was not the case in the old “gurukula” system, but here, doorway phenomenon is counterproductive in terms of enabling a broad level thinking.
So, how to better employee engagement with this phenomenon?
For a successful business, their culture should be designed based on keeping this phenomenon in mind. An office with an open/no cubicle seating would tend to foster a more open culture.
For better quality, a strong process framework with boundaries of specific inputs and outputs for each life cycle stage would allow for a very predictable quality.
So, an organisation, depending on their vision and goals, should look at how the existing processes, frameworks etc are aligned from the perspective of the doorway phenomenon and check how this would help reach the target vision and goal of the organisation.
There is a tendency to adapt a successful approach system for one organisation – hoping that it would be successful on another. But this is a fallacy in most cases as vision, goal and the users/customers of these approach systems may differ.
So, a thorough systemic analysis using a tool like Design Thinking can help resolve these issues.
The awareness of the doorway effect phenomenon would help in designing better usable processes, systems, and intuitive products that are easy to understand and use.
The conscious application of the phenomenon can be a game changer in terms of how we look at various aspects of an organisational growth and culture. All one should do, is to “design” this simple aspect to meet their business and customer goals to create a better employee experience – which in turn leads to better customer experience.