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.