Creating a Collaborative Environment

How much can we really say about this?  Head to Ikea for a couple of couches and a coffee table, wheel a whiteboad over and – voila! – it’s a collaborative workspace.  Right?


In the Harvard Business Review article “Who Moved My Cube?” authors Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks cited the example of Scandanavian Airlines’ attempt to do just that.  They put together common areas like a café, shopping, and medical facilities, along with multipurpose rooms that featured coffee machines, faxes and photo copiers interspersed with comfortable furniture.  Management invited employees to use the new space for impromptu meetings, and no one came.

Turns out that these open floor plans can discourage employee interactions as much as they encourage them.  Collaborative workspaces, studies find, are a delicate balance of privacy, proximity and permission.  When your manager asks you to give some thought to a collaborative work area for your group, keep these elements in mind.

Privacy – There are two privacy issues where collaborative spaces are concerned.  The first is an obvious one: employees are hesitant to talk where they fear they might be overheard.  The second one is the less obvious notion that employees are hesitant to go into an area where they cannot avoid social interaction when they wish to.  The ideal collaborative area features “alcoves” where employees can speak with some assurance of privacy and use the common area without danger of being dragged into a meeting.

These “alcoves” don’t necessarily have to be architecturally present.  If you observe how people congregate, you’ll notice make-shift alcoves in the form of office doorways, cube walls, etc.  Look around and get creative about how you construct yours!

Proximity – I am reminded of the show Seinfeld and how Kramer was Jerry’s “friend by proximity” (read: someone he wouldn’t be friends with if he didn’t live across the hall).  We all know that we interact with people who are conveniently nearby, and collaborative common areas feature no different rules.  People need a reason to go to them.  Common resources are usually a solution to this – if common areas are near to the kitchen, restrooms or other useful items like copiers or fax machines), your traffic and usage will increase.

Proximity, though, isn’t just about space, and in your planning you need to keep this is mind.  Fayard and Weeks made mention of a group of researchers with a communal coffee pot who would take turns making coffee each afternoon.  The result was a group pow-wow in the kitchen while they drank from the fresh pot.  The head researcher realized how important this informal time was and so he purchased a single-serve machine that produced high-quality hot beverages, hoping people would be even more excited about coffee time.  Indeed, they were appreciative, but they would then come at different times of the day, filing in and out alone with their hot beverage. Social exchanges plummeted.  The head researcher had inadvertently decreased proximity.

So, when you’re thinking about your common spaces, think about why groups are visiting there now, and what will make them visit even more.

Permission – We’ve already talked a lot about your manager’s role in “giving permission” to her group to be in collaborative mode, by encouraging, rewarding and modeling that kind of behavior.  But physical space also affords permission.  Where employees might not feel comfortable chewing the fat in the coffee room, where talking with others seems like a work-avoidance tactic, the same behavior feels very comfortable at the copier, where you’re stuck waiting in front of the machine while it performs its task.  Think about the “mindless” things you need to do in your organization that require shared resources, and position those resources accordingly.  In my position at Gannett, we often made large maps showing where our billboards were located, so we could present them to advertisers.  Great informal conversations took place there!

I’m going to add in a little of my own experience here, too.  If you’re developing a collaborative common area, make the area all about the people using it.  Put pictures of them on the wall.  Employ that coardboard cut-out of Justin Bieber with the boss’ face fixed to it.  Keep it tasteful, especially if external guests will be passing through, but make it familiar, homey, and all theirs.

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