A Tour of Potential Collaborative Spaces

Though not an exhaustive list of possible collaborative spaces, these examples demonstrate how different spaces can support various situations.

Commons Areas. The community area, cafeteria, or “commons” area for many companies can be the central gathering place of the organization and often can promote informal and spontaneous communications. In addition, there always seems to be an open spot in these areas to meet, so employees don’t have to worry about reserving a space in advance, thus saving time, preserving the spontaneity of many interactions, and addressing the frequent complaint of difficulty in finding or reserving an available room.

The openness of these areas could cause someone to think that privacy is a major issue. In reality, it often is not an issue because workers have “aural” privacy – that is they can sense who is around them and moderate discussion topics and voice levels accordingly.

The areas can be furnished with everything from lounge furniture to cafeteria-style tables and chairs, depending on workers’ needs. The coffee-shop-like feeling provided by some of these areas can also be appealing for many workers. Obviously, the presence of food can determine the need for tables, while the need to write or type on a laptop can require the need for tables, tablet arms, or power/voice/data capabilities.

Project Rooms. Dedicated project or “war” rooms often are ideal for teams engaged in semi-permanent missions or long-term projects. They give the team not only a place to gather, but also a place to store artifacts and records, chart progress, communicate messages, and display information. A project room benefits groups working under deadlines and those whose work is highly interdependent. It also is popular with groups engaged in new-product development and prototyping. New members learn faster by modeling behavior including picking up the tribal knowledge they gain from interactions with teammates. In addition, questions can be addressed immediately rather than waiting on formal meetings or processes.

Project rooms should provide for visual display of information and artifacts, timelines, to-do lists, shared goals, inspiration, progress, and knowledge. There should be mobile marker boards and tackable boards for writing and hanging that are important in the creative process. They also may have images, colors, and mottos that stimulate creativity and esprit de corps.

Because they are semi-permanent and dedicated, people don’t have to waste time setting up and taking down or bother with scheduling. These spaces always are available for impromptu gatherings for the team, and confidential information can be safely stored if these rooms can be locked so that people outside the team can’t steal secrets or walk off with furniture, tools, or artifacts. Walls can be semi-opaque to provide visual privacy of the group work, especially when clients or vendors are frequenting the area. Often, it is beneficial to locate the project room, unlike many other collaborative spaces, in an out-of-the-way, off-to-the-side area. It may be a true enclosed room, or walled off using screens or partitions.

To furnish a project room, use furniture that is moveable, but not necessarily mobile. People should be able to rearrange the furniture easily, but not walk off with it. It should be equipped with the display tools and technology needed, as well as a system for storing and securing the group’s materials. Think in terms of marker boards, tackable boards, lounge furniture, and multiple tables and chairs that can be moved apart or pushed together. The need for power, data, audio/visual, and telecom can vary from team to team. If there is a big central table, and the only power and data connections are in the walls, you may experience wire management issues.

Pods/Bullpens. In their classic study, Offices that Work, Frank Becker and William Sims from Cornell University discuss the many benefits of the “pod” concept, commonly defined as individual workstations or offices that surround a group or commons area. The group area frequently has small meeting tables and storage furnishings. These are especially popular for work that requires both heads-down activities and frequent spontaneous interaction, as well as a sense of trust between team members, such as the work of software engineers or research scientists.

An advantage of this pod concept is that people can go easily and quickly from their individual areas to the central collaborative area. Interestingly, “good” distractions happen when people can overhear discussions and quickly help with problems others are having. This saves time because people are using collective knowledge and are not recreating an existing solution. Another timesaver is that the occupants don’t need to schedule the space because the team owns it. Finally, pods help foster a sense of community and camaraderie. Because individual workstations and offices are open to the commons area and serve as the perimeter, one trade-off of pods is they don’t accommodate a lot of vertical display, like a war room can, unless portable visual display tools are provided.

As with the project room, the central area will need power outlets and phones to be centrally located. And you’ll want to choose furniture that is relatively mobile so the group can configure according to its needs and adapt to change.

People in pods tend to develop social rules and a sense of community. An example might be that it’s permissible for someone inside the group to interrupt, but not an outsider. People want to be free from visual and vocal distractions from outside. However, within the group it can be welcomed, or at least much easier to tolerate. So walls around the perimeter serve a privacy function as well as a delineation of the team’s turf. It’s not unusual for teams working in pods to put up their own boundaries using partitions or file cabinets to form a sense of privacy.

Individual Workstations/Offices. Individual workstations can be important collaborative spaces, even though they are designed as a home base for individual workers. The workstation often does double-duty as a place for both heads-down and collaborative work and frequently is the primary place for one-on-one collaboration (or for small groups in the case of many private offices).

Workstations can invite collaboration with guest seating, with worksurfaces shaped to provide a place for guests to put a notebook, coffee cup, and other accessories, or through the nesting of a table and a pull-out, cushiontopped mobile pedestal under the worksurface to quickly turn the workstation into a one-on-one collaborative area. The area may need to be configured so that displays, such as the computer screen, can be seen by all parties. In addition, lower panel heights (42 to 54 inches) or glass stackers provide line of sight, which is an important catalyst to collaborative encounters. Having tables that quickly can be turned from an individual worksurface to a collaborative meeting table also can support one-on-one meetings. One disclaimer is to be sensitive to the noise this can generate for neighbors.

Informal Meeting Areas. Informal meeting areas can have the most variability of usage. As we know, their placement and the degree to which people feel free to use them can have a dramatic impact on the frequency of use. Placing these drop-in areas at strategic locations, such as near the watering hole, the top of the stairs, entrances to team areas, etc., invites people to spontaneously interact. It is helpful, however, not to have people feel like they are on display.

Informal meeting areas can range from stools with standing height tables to lounge furniture to very casual beanbags. Considerations for these areas include the presence of worksurfaces for writing, mobility of the furniture, and the availability of mobile screens for visual