Collaborative Spaces – Creating Synergy in the Workplace

Creating Spaces that Engage

Collaborative spaces are not just one meeting space or an open office. They embody a wide variety of spaces within the office and in order to best create collaborative spaces, the design should take into account the proximity to other spaces. The design should be visually connected to other spaces and should consider the current patterns of movement within the office. Most importantly the design should embrace flexibility and provide a variety of areas to encourage the different activities needed to promote team building.

When beginning the process of creating collaborative spaces, we need to consider the different interactions desired, such as spontaneous conversation, relaxed informal communication, collaborative teams areas and semi-private conversation areas. All these interactions reinforce the cohesiveness of a group generating positive synergy and teamwork. The need is to promote and engage employees and develop communication and informal relationships.  Think of the spontaneous conversation in the hallway as the starting point to establishing a strong informal relationship between employees. This interaction has the opportunity to establish a basis of ideas and synergy.  Small sitting areas in relaxed settings like the break room or cafeteria can further this ‘connectedness’,  and gathering areas near workspaces and offices can further promote more informal communication.

Location, Location, Location

If collaborative spaces are clustered near workspaces or common areas, employees will be more willing to utilise that space.  Proximity is crucial. A collaborative space should be near an activity centre, along a well-travelled path or adjacent to the workspaces. Carve out a nook within the break area, so people are willing to sit or place spaces along paths and ensure the space is easily recognisable and accessible.

One example of a collaborative space was of a police station that sought to create a sense of community and support camaraderie amongst the officers. The issue to overcome was that the staff were not in the office for the entire period of their shift, leaving regularly through the day or night. The only real time for interaction was when the staff came in before and after shifts to check mail, drink coffee, file reports or to attend briefings. Since budget was crucial, additional space could not be added. Rather than create a series of small spaces that were off a hallway, spaces on a widened hallway were added to act as an active ‘street’.  There was no cost increase, and the entire police station proved less expensive than a comparable building when looking at cost per square metre.

Get Visual!

Another design consideration is to connect the spaces visually. Put simply, if the space is not seen it will not be used. Colour selection and texture of the materials are important in establishing visual identity of the spaces and through the use of colour and texture, spaces are easily recognised. The colour and texture can also designate the area as different and promote the use of these spaces.

We took this consideration in our own offices, nothing a need of our teams to spread out and think outside of their workspaces. By removing a few of the built-in workstations at the intersections of major paths and purchasing casual chairs on casters with removable writing/laptop surfaces, were able to create a collaborative space. Lastly, rather than construction walls, we defined this space through the use of different coloured carpet, and the total cost came to only 24,000 CNY.

Inside Out

Consider creating spaces that are visible from the outside. The use of glass or other translucent materials allows for people to observe the space while allowing some privacy for the users. This is particularly important where the team space will be louder than the adjacent areas.

On a recent office renovation that I was involved with, traditional offices along both sides of a hallway were torn down and an open office environment was created. Two of the office spaces were retained while the wall adjoin them was demolished creating a large space immediately adjacent to the new workspaces. The spaces were connected visually to the workspace through the use of interior windows and a sofa and a few moveable chairs were added. The change was enormous, but the cost wasn’t – only 45,000 CNY.

Be Flexible

Collaborative spaces should also be flexible, and not restricted to single use or special use spaces. In your plan, anticipate a variety of activities and consider furniture that is relaxed, more casual and mobile. Allow for small projectors to cast on a variety of surfaces within the area – perhaps along the backs of chairs or different wall surfaces. This way, the spaces can take on a life of their own, being constantly modified or reorganized based on the groups using them.

Encourage the Interaction

Bringing people together is only half of the solution of collaborative spaces. The business must support the employees and the spaces through the use of resources and corporate culture.  These could include network connectivity for employees either through wireless or data ports, and must support multiple users. Power outlets for laptops, portable projectors and other peripheral devices are a must, and with them, the space now has an opportunity to be utilised for small team meetings.

Give the team the tools to communicate and record their thoughts be providing flipcharts and dry erase white boards and if the budget allows for extending the thoughts shared almost immediately after they are generated via e-mail, extending the reach of the communication.

And finally, the desire for the opportunity to create synergy is much different than fostering the informal interaction.  Areas that are encouraged to be collaborative should be allowed to remain flexible and agile. This same philosophy should apply to the employees. Developing synergy through the use of collaborative spaces is about creating and supporting varied opportunities. Simply put, plan for the spontaneous. A great collaborative space will cultivate the interpersonal relationships and with a supportive environment, synergy will naturally occur.