Designed Collaboration

One of the grievances I had with my last role (as a grants manager at a large Pharmaceutical company) was the physical space in which I worked.  We were lucky not to work in cubicles, but had our own offices each with their own door.  The hallway that I worked was comprised of a lengthy row of these closed off spaces where people tended to shut themselves in for most of the day…Sometimes I wouldn’t see my coworkers unless it was in a public space.  We mostly all worked on our own projects, and with teams literally in buildings across the street.  There are many things wrong with this scene but here I’d like to focus on collaboration and knowledge sharing.

I am a strong believer in collaboration.  It’s a way to unite different perspectives and produce more interesting work.  Among other benefits, constant close communication increases efficiency (For one, the school of agile development is a large proponent.).   From a project stance, the best and most powerful way to encourage collaboration is collocation.  Take this a step further and design the physical space your team works in to further encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing.  I’ve heard of companies doing anything from having employees from all different disciplines/roles purposely mixed and sharing workspaces to designing communal spaces strategically placed in areas that force people to move around and co-mingle (I’m looking at you ‘water cooler’.)…

Design firm Antenna has taken this human centered design approach a step further and has designed office furniture that encourages random encounters as well as being suitable for the mobile world we live in.  The line is aptly named “Activity Spaces” and was designed specifically to spark conversation and collaboration.  The furniture is lightweight, mobile, and is suitable for resting tablets and other portable devices.  The firm has also created lightweight, minimal charging ports that can be moved to any spontaneous work spot.

I’m fascinated with this type of organizational thinking and it’s something I used to think about while I was sitting in my dark shut off office… and guess what?  Yes, this type of thought has its own field of study and is sometimes referred to as organizational design - a human centered approach to creating an effective work environment.  More organizations should study and subscribe to this organizational approach. 

I understand that different organizations and types of work demand working environments tailored to the needs of the group and the work being performed.  Maybe it’s not suitable to outfit your office/building with the Activity Spaces line of furniture, but ANY project and organization can certainly reap the benefits of a well-designed workspace, keeping communication and in person collaboration always in mind.