Perceptions of territoriality in open office environment: impact on situated learning.

AuthorKasuganti, Aneetha Rao


Changing technologies, expanding markets and fierce competition in the rapidly changing business environments have made learning a process by which organizations develop the ability to face change and gain competitive advantage (Argote, 1999; Stata, 1989). Organizational learning has therefore captured the interest of both researchers and practitioners; researchers attempt to understand the phenomenon and identify what promotes or facilitates learning in organizations; practitioners seek to use this knowledge to identify interventions that would ensure promotion of learning, thereby ensuring sustainability and growth of the organization. The practice based view of organizational learning considers it as a social process, emphasizing its collective and situated nature. According to this perspective, learning occurs during activities and practices that are shared and rooted in multi-dimensional organizational contexts comprising individuals, their actions, relationships, and the physical environment in which the actions take place (Brown & Duguid, 1991; Nova, 2005). Ittelson, Franck and O'Hanlon (1976) argue that individuals cannot be separated from the environment because they are part of the environmental system that they experience. According to these authors, experience of the environment affects strategies of dealing with the environment and actions that occur within it, which then affects experience, making it a cyclical process where the two aspects, action and experience, cannot be separated (Ittelson et al., 1976; Mehrabian& Russell, 1974). Since experience of the physical environment affects actions within it, it is possible that learning that occurs in the course of activities and practices may also be impacted, which makes the experience of the physical environment crucial for learning rooted in action (Nicolini, Gherardi & Yanow, 2003).

Research on physical environments and behavior in organizations have identified that layouts in open offices influence spatial behavior such as territoriality, perceptions of privacy and crowding, communication and interaction, and outcomes such as creativity and innovation (Allen, 1977; Sundstrom & Sundstrom, 1986; Stokols, Clitheroe & Zmuidzinas, 2002). Studies on territorial behavior in open offices have focused on negative outcomes such as increasing distraction and conflict (Ayoko, Ashkanasy & Jehn, 2009; Danielsson, Bodin, Wulff& Theorell, 2015). However research has also identified that attachment to organizational objects and spaces caused by territorial marking extends to attachment to the organization which has been found to result in greater commitment to the workplace (Brown, Lawrence& Robinson, 2005; Vischer, 2008). Examining this aspect of territorial behavior becomes important in open offices as spaces are shared: territorial attachment would be to the shared space, and resultant attachment, commitment, and sense of community would apply to the organization as a whole. Commitment and sense of community have been found to be key facilitators of situated learning that occurs as a course of daily actions and activity in the workplace (Brown & Duguid, 1991). This paper therefore argues that territorial behavior in open offices supports situated learning.

The positive impact of territorial behavior in open offices is important to the field of situated learning in organizations for both theoretical and applied reasons. Theoretically, this study extends research on territoriality by identifying that feelings of control and belonging that result from territorial behavior in open office environments are instrumental in creating comfort to perform tasks while also supporting interactions with others, which have positive effect on learning in action and knowledge sharing. Identifying territorial behavior in open offices as a facilitator of situated learning, adds to research that explores supportive learning environments. In terms of practical importance, the study provides input in the design of physical environments that facilitate and encourage learning that occurs in the course of daily activities in the workplace. Using data from a cross-sectional study in knowledge intensive companies in the IT and consultancy domains, this paper examines the relationship between perceptions of territoriality and of situated learning, and seeks to establish that sense of belonging and control associated with territorial behavior in open office environments facilitate situated learning in organizations.

Situated Learning

Practice-based theories view learning as a social process that is part of everyday life in organizations. New knowledge is created by learning in action, and through "speech, conversations, bodily gestures, glances, expressions and data exchanges" (Amin & Cohandet, 2004: 67), which result in a common understanding of work processes or practices. Individuals learn while they work through participation in practices or activities in the workplace and they gradually assimilate, adapt, transform, and at times reject these practices in favor of new ones. The new understanding becomes a part of the practice and of knowledge related to it, transforming both the practice and the knowledge (Amin & Cohandet, 2004:67, Brown & Duguid, 1991; Lave & Wenger, 1991). Dialogue and conversations between individuals are a part of activities and actions in the workplace, and knowledge is shared and exchanged through these discussions that occur within the organizational context (Brown & Duguid, 1991; Nova, 2005). Situated learning therefore occurs in action and involves knowledge sharing, resulting in the exchange of tacit knowledge and the development of common or shared understanding which is instrumental in aiding growth and sustainability of the organization (Argote, 1999; Stata, 1989). The process is unplanned, and occurs within the everyday context and not in controlled environment that individuals experience for limited periods of time (Nova, 2005; Suchman, 1996). In order to facilitate this form of learning, it is therefore essential for employees to have an environment supportive of task performance, interaction and communication. Employees need to be engaged with each other and the work they perform, as well as committed to the organization in order to perform their tasks well and be involved in discussion that enables knowledge sharing (Brown & Duguid, 1991; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). Since learning occurs as part of everyday activities, and these activities are part of the organizational environment, contexts play an important role in influencing the process (Elkjaer, 2005; Nicolini et al., 2003; Sole & Edmondson, 2002). Although prior research has established the influence of elements in the context such as trust and leadership on learning in organizations, the role of the physical environment, specifically spatial behavior such as territoriality has not been examined in relation to situated learning in organizations.


Territorial behavior comprises "self/ other boundary-regulation mechanisms that involve marking of a place and communication that is 'owned by' a person or group" (Altman, 1975:107). This behavior has been linked to controlled access and affective response to the environment (Altman, 1975). One of the ways that territorial behavior in organizations manifests itself is through marking, which involves the use of physical symbols such as photographs or indicators of personal achievement that may help establish identity with the space, or may also imply the creation of boundaries to control territory (Brown et al., 2005). Through marking, individuals satisfy and regulate their need for privacy, establish claim to physical areas and maintain control over them, and regulate boundaries in order to facilitate ideal kinds of interaction (Altman, 1975; Altman & Chemers, 1980). Marking also enables them to communicate their identity and to satisfy the desire for physical and psychological security by having a place of their own (Brown et al., 2005; Wells, 2000; White, 1959).

Regulation of boundaries, privacy and interaction with others which are associated with territorial behavior are influenced by the office design and the amount of personal space that individuals have. With the advent of open-plan offices since the 1960s, research has focused on aspects of this design on behavior in workplaces. Offices with this design are characterized by open spaces where employees across levels are seated together (Brennan, Chugh & Kline, 2002). No formal barriers exist and plants, moveable screens, cabinets, shelving...

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