Bullpen vs pod

I did a quick study for a class I’m taking this summer comparing the ease of collaboration in a bullpen work environment to a pod work environment and had some interesting and unexpected results.

A bullpen is an open area with a group of workstations that are not visually separated. A pod is a small group of workstations that are enclosed within walls that are high enough that occupants cannot see into the next pod.

The study asked pod and bullpen occupants how easy it was to collaborate in their current environments and asked bullpen occupants whether it was easier or harder to collaborate in the workstations than in the pods. Just over half of the people asked to complete the survey were housed in pods; the rest had moved within the last few months from pods to the bullpen.

I expected that it would be easier to collaborate in the open bullpen environment since other research has shown that open workplaces encourage collaboration, particularly if workers have visual and aural connection. The bullpen seemed to fit this description exactly – it was open, workers could see and hear each other readily over the low (12″) partitions that divided them from others, and were in closer proximity than in the pods.

However, my survey revealed that pod dwellers are much more likely to collaborate than people in bullpen environments. Here are some of the results. 76% of pod occupants on one floor of the study office and 86% of pod occupants on the other floor said they found it “very easy” to collaborate with people in their pods. On the bullpen floor, only 11% said collaboration with those in their immediate vicinity was “very easy”. None of the pod occupants said that collaboration was “very hard”, whereas 20% of the bullpen occupants did select “very hard”. When asked how easy or hard it was to collaborate with team members not in the pod or immediate vicinity, 19% of pod dwellers found it “very easy”, but none said it was “very hard.” Only 6% of bullpen dwellers, however, said that such collaboration was “very easy” and 14% said it was “very hard”. Everyone else rated their collaboration experience as “somewhat easy” or “somewhat hard”.

Finally, bullpen dwellers were asked to compare the ease of collaboration in the bullpen environment to the ease of collaboration in their previous pod environments. 11% said it was “much easier” to collaborate with proximate workers in the bullpens, but 43% said it was “much harder”. 9% said it was “much easier” to collaborate with non-proximate team members, but 40% reported this as “much harder”!

Other things besides the furniture configuration were undoubtedly in play and not reflected in the study. Privacy, resistance to change, noise, circulation patterns, etc. can play a big role in the ability to collaborate and may have been factors in the study results (I did not test for these).

My opinion, not based on the study results, is that the open bullpen has several faults. First, workers have no privacy. The space is too open and people get distracted by all that activity, suffering from sensory overload. Even the most collaborative of workers needs some quiet time and some privacy. Pulling back and lessening efforts to collaborate just might be a defensive reaction to lack of privacy and personal space.

Second, the bullpen’s circulation paths are indirect and somewhat invasive. To talk to people who are not in the immediate vicinity, bullpen workers have to travel behind everyone else in their row to the main path at the end, cross to the row of the person they’re trying to see, then move back up another narrow path behind the backs of the workers in that row. I’m sure this somewhat convoluted path seems longer than it really is and feels like an invasion of the other workers’ private space. In the pods, in contrast, the circulation path is direct and public – one takes 3 or 4 steps to exit the pod onto the public path and never has to walk directly behind someone’s back.

Third, the bullpen space isn’t set up for the kind of impromptu interaction opportunities that characterize collaboration. The pods are interspersed with tall “flat files” spaced along the common circulation path. People meet as they pass and can spontaneously congregate for a chat or to collaborate on a project. The bullpen appears to have no such nodes where a crowd of four or five can meet spontaneously. Although rows of workbenches are separated by low files, those files are too low to lean on and study documents. Meeting appears to be more deliberate and less spontaneous.

My conclusion is that bullpens don’t appear to be a great choice for businesses that want employees to collaborate, at least not without some careful additional thought into circulation and privacy. I’d love to do some more in-depth research with these participants to find out why they responded in the way they did.

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