The Architecture of Collaboration

In just one week, I read two major news stories about companies that are designing new workspaces to foster collaboration and creativity.

The first was in the Sunday New York Times Business section on March 18; it started with a story about the Seattle headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where they cut way back on private offices. Instead, there are a variety of workspaces that are available to anyone. Martha Choe, the Chief Administrative Officer, prefers to work at a long table at the side of a 33-foot-high open mezzanine. Other workers constantly walk by; anyone can set up their own laptop across the table.

Companies build this way because the research on creativity and collaboration shows that conversation, noise, and a bit of chaos are good. Chance encounters lead to knowledge exchange, and surprising new combinations. Private offices are a waste of space, anyway, serving mostly to telegraph the occupant’s status (the most central people in an organization are the ones that are never in their offices, anyway). In these new spaces, people are constantly in motion, always gathering into small groups. Stairways are inviting and a bit wider than usual, because so many chance encounters happen there. For that reason, the stairways are designed to end at a coffee station, a copy machine, or an informal grouping of furniture–to make it easy to sit down if you need to continue that unexpected conversation a bit longer.

A few days later (Wednesday March 21) the Wall Street Journal published a story about the collaboration benefits of shared workspaces–where employees from different companies rent space in the same building. This has long been common for smaller startups that can’t afford their own building. But unlike the old style, where every company has its own floor with a receptionist to keep out strangers, these new buildings (the story leads with one in Grand Rapids, Michigan) encourage workers to move around freely, bouncing ideas off of other workers no matter what company they work for.

These informal conversations are so effective at sparking creative collaboration, that some established companies–with plenty of their own buildings–are renting a part of these new spaces, simply to take advantage of the power of conversation. In the Grand Rapids building, there are employees from established companies like Steelcase, Wolverine, Meijer, and Amway.

I advocate these collaborative spaces in my 2007 book Group Genius (pp. 164-166), pointing out that office furniture companies like Steelcase and Herman Miller have been way ahead of this trend. I’m glad to see that companies are getting the message; the New York Times article reports that two-thirds of American office space uses some sort of open arrangement. The problem is that with many of those arrangements, people just feel crammed together with no privacy. The key to getting it right is to tap into the research about collaboration and creativity.

Lawrence W. Cheek: “In new office designs, room to roam, and to think.” New York Times, March 18 2012, pp. BU1, 4.

Rachel Emma Silverman: “Firms share space, ideas.” Wall Street Journal, March 21 2012, p. B8.

7 thoughts on “The Architecture of Collaboration

  1. This is a great piece – the idea of using innovative work spaces as a key piece of any collaboration strategy is important – Space if properly designed definitely plays a subtle yet powerful role in fostering collaborative behaviors- I work in a cubicle-less workplace and can vouch for this.

  2. Currently I am exploring collaborative environments as a way to reduce the communication overhead of traditional negotiation based collaboration, so really enjoyed this post. I was looking at more online solutions but love the free roaming office spaces you describe, where depending on the type of work, particular project or energy required – can up-root to be in the right environment. Co-working spaces (and not only for freelancers) here in Berlin have become really popular for this reason (check out betahaus). But I think is also important to still have some quiet private areas as part of this complete spectrum where great creative work can also be done … not only in the headphones bubble!

    1. Absolutely, these buildings should have more private spaces as well. The first wave of open offices often did not have sufficient private space; I’ve been on phone calls with people that had to go into the stairwell or leave the building for privacy. But the newer wave of buildings has a more balanced mix of spaces, including “phone call rooms” where you can close the door. But most of the private spaces are more like alcoves or nooks, where there is privacy and quiet but often no closed door…the idea is, people transition between conversation and solitude throughout the day, and the flow of the space should make those transitions easier.

  3. Do you think the biggest value is in making spaces that are usable by everyone, or just in having many available mixed-use spaces, and not limiting the use of those spaces to anyone? In other words, could you foster collaboration with typical “office spaces” – cubicles, board rooms, offices – that are informal, open to everyone, and evenly distributed throughout the office? Or does it take a complete overhaul of the space?

    1. Well, the two most important features of a collaborative workspace are, first, that the various spaces are configured to match the ways that people work–in teams, in pairs, and alone; and that the space makes it easy to transition between different work modes. Conventional offices fail on this first feature; they have too much solo space and not enough spaces for pairs and teams; and, transitioning between modes isn’t easy (you have to schedule a time, reserve a conference room, and walk all the way over there). Second, the space should foster unanticipated encounters while you’re moving around, and also make it easy to transition that unexpected encounter into an impromptu meeting (to a nearby alcove with a bench that’s just perfect for two people, for example). Conventional offices fail on this second feature too; in most of them, the only people you ever run into are people you work with all the time anyway. And the transitional spaces (hallways, stairwells) are not conducive to conversation anyway.

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