Creating the Right Setting for Effective Collaboration

The “if we build it they will come” model of providing collaboration spaces for employees rarely works. Workplace experts will tell you that too many areas – perhaps millions of square feet – provided for collaborative work are empty much of the time. That’s millions of square feet costing organizations a small fortune to maintain, sitting empty and not meeting their desired goal of supporting the business. This disappointing utilization of space can have several causes including lack of management support for collaborative areas, the mismatching of available spaces and those looking for a place to do group work, not providing the right type of space for the right collaborative activities, or simply not performing the type of work that requires collaboration.

So how do we get the space formula right in order to make the best use of a real-estate investment? Savvy workplace planners follow a strict methodology for creating environments that provide the right types of spaces in the best locations that truly support the range of activities and desired behaviors of an organization. This methodology takes into account several factors:

  • Context is critical. Workplace plans and designs must be informed by the organization’s industry, size, focus, strategy, culture, worker types, and regional considerations. Every organization has unique characteristics and a distinct approach to work. Planners need to help them differentiate between general workplace characteristics and those that are specific to their situations.
  • Planners need to thoroughly understand the work processes being supported. As stated previously, many spaces dedicated to collaborative work go unused because the spaces often do not reflect the type of work being done or the type and amount of collaboration employees need to accomplish the activity. Three general types of work – creative, problem-solving, and knowledge transfer – can require somewhat different types of collaborative spaces.

Highly creative teams likely rely on artifacts or visual materials and can benefit from the “over-the-life-of-the project” display of these items. The proximity of these spaces to the team’s individual work areas also can be slightly less important than for other types of workers, since the creative process can sometimes benefit from removing oneself from distractions of the phone or the work on one’s desk. On the other hand, teams working 24/7 on brand-new technologies might be most comfortable in a space that merges individual areas with collaborative areas and supports a high degree of chaos and instant reconfiguration.

Problem-solving, process-oriented teams may have relatively less need for visual display, but proximity may be more critical, as these teams will grab another team member to quickly tackle a problem as soon as it arises. In the case of software engineers working out the bugs on an upgrade to an existing application, they may need to sit side-by-side in a team member’s workstation so they can both see the monitor to check a line of code.

Knowledge-transfer activities may be well-supported by more traditional meeting spaces, such as conference rooms or training areas, where the ability to easily use technology is the most critical factor.

  • The average worker still spends half of his or her time performing activities that require concentration. Planners need to strike a balance between providing spaces for collaboration and heads-down concentration.
  • Actual space utilization can help to determine whether the mix, quality, and characteristics of spaces are matching the users’ needs.

These ideas for creating successful collaboration spaces seem like common sense. Yet frequently they are not addressed, often because clients and their workplace planners don’t study the organization’s work practices in sufficient depth.