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Organizational culture is paramount, providing the context for everything else.

1. Find a Balance.

This will depend upon the size of your organization and its location(s), the type of business and the varied tasks and workstyles of the staff. In some cases, people spend only a small amount time in their workstation—which would suggest changing the ratio of 80% individual workstations / 20% public space to 60% individual / 40% public.

Appropriate allocation of space also means thinking about what types of public spaces work best for your company. Do you need enclosed meeting rooms? Or, do cafes, open lounges and semi-enclosed spaces function as meeting rooms? For many firms, the best solution will be some combination, with planning that provides for collaborative zones just outside of workstations and conference rooms, allowing for ad hoc meetings in a variety of spaces.

2. Make it Visible.

We cannot emphasize enough the importance of visibility when planning workstations or zones that make it easy to encounter others on the way to the printer, the office café or a scheduled meeting. Visibility can be enhanced with clear glass wall systems, low panel heights and freestanding worktables that provide an uninterrupted worksurface.

It should be noted that visibility refers not only to people, but also to work. Whiteboards that are visible to the group or to passersby can trigger exchanges that spark ideas. Large monitors in the private office or a shared workspace also allow people to gather and contribute to work in progress.

3. Set off sparks.

The workplace must provide for small, impromptu meetings. It is essential to create a variety of visible and accessible locations where people can gather spontaneously, rather than solely in a room that needs to be “booked.” Such meeting rooms are often under-utilized because of the limited time they are available before another meeting is scheduled. If a meeting is interrupted just as the creative sparks are flying, the opportunity for innovation may be lost.

4. Plan Collisions

One strategy is to mix environments: move a printer into the cafeteria, create a meeting space in the library, create pin-up walls in the cafeteria or hallways, or funnel traffic to a central circulation zone so that people have chance encounters.

5. Meet quick.

Standing-height surfaces encourage spontaneous meetings. At the same time, standing height tables, with or without stools, do not imply a lengthy conversation. They are collision points with no time commitment. Tables and counters or bars also invite people to stop and talk, providing a place to lean or perch, and easing the awkwardness of hovering or standing without support.

Standing-height tables, counters and bars can be effectively used in workstations, meeting rooms and corridors outside meeting rooms, as well as lunchrooms and libraries—wherever smaller groups of people might want to meet.

6. Efficient use of space.

Dedicated spaces are often under utilized because of the limited time that they are available before another group is scheduled to use the space. Dedicated meeting rooms should not be the sole solution to office needs. At the same time, most companies require at least some small meeting rooms, as well as flow-through meeting areas and spaces with casual lounge seating.

7. Promote sharing.

Shared components promote collaboration. Storage islands, for example, can also act as a conference commons. Displays (including large and rotating monitors) and guest seating in the workstation encourage useful input from team members or passersby. A small mobile table shared among a large team invites members to share data or results, not necessarily with the entire group.

8. Flexibility is key.

Collaboration takes many forms: mentoring and learning, sharing, showing and co-creating. Collaboration can be a brainstorming session between two people or a conversation among a dozen. The workspace should build in several levels of collaboration in order to be able to adapt to different activities and groups.

However much people collaborate, provision for heads-down, concentrated work must be made. Acoustic and visual privacy are important issues to consider in the open plan office. But privacy is not always a matter of four walls and a door.

Generally speaking, the nature of work shifts throughout the day from quiet, solitary tasks to group discussions or one-on-one conversations. Thus, different levels of privacy can be provided across workstations, casual seating areas and quiet rooms or enclaves for uninterrupted thinking, planning and writing. A library, lunchroom or an empty conference room also offer different places to be, a choice of locations appropriate to the task.

9. Create a buzz.

Arrange space to maximize traffic flow and places where “creative collisions” can take place. The office landscape is comparable to urban environments that lack public gathering places suitable for mixed use and thus, are not conducive to walking and socializing. On the other hand, in cities with public squares surrounded by a variety of businesses, as well as living quarters, people gather frequently to shop, eat, socialize and attend events. Many urban planners are now creating such pedestrian-friendly places to revitalize deteriorating neighbourhoods; a similar approach to office planning can also engage employees and enhance interaction.

10. Invite them.

Our research highlights that is it important to find ways to make a space more inviting: this can be achieved with transparency, low-height space division, sliding doors, accent lighting, spaces anchored with fixed furniture in combination with mobile furniture, sculptural shapes and “binding” elements that evoke familiar forms such as a school chalkboard or even meeting “pods” in the form of Swiss chalets and igloos such as Google provides in its Zurich office.

11. Address virtual distance.

As society continues its transition into the digital age, companies must also address the opportunities and the difficulties inherent in collaboration among a virtual workforce. While technology allows for communication across geographies, time and organizations, it does not close the distance between social norms and values or make up for the difficulty in building affinity or trust among people who do not work and socialize together on a day-to-day basis.

Even the most advanced technology does not yet solve the problem of sharing tacit information or updating team members in a timely manner. Once again, however, culture is important and an open, adaptive organization is more likely to succeed than one that is adverse to change.

Our focus here, however, is on the workplace and the collaboration and creativity that does or does not take place therein. At least until the next iteration of technology is implemented, the office is still “where the action is.” Intelligent, critical design thinking can help us map and manage an office that fosters the innovation our global economy and our world so vitally need today.

12. Finally, know thyself.

There is no single answer to creating a collaborative culture or workplace. Every company is unique with its own culture, technology, workstyle and space. In general, we emphasize that changes big and small need to be made to encourage co-creativity. A “big” change might be eliminating all walls, as is often the case; a “smaller” change might be lowering the height of cubicle walls or adding mobile tables and guest seating in open work areas.

As Diane Stegmeier points out in her white paper, Workplace Futures, the success of workplace strategies is reliant upon a congruence of the physical environment and the company’s core values, culture and image. Space planning is only one element—albeit an important element—in a complex system of physical, psychological and virtual environments that influence behavior in the modern workplace.

Organizational culture is paramount, providing the context for everything else. If leaders and managers do not model the behavior they expect, if they do not support the free flow of information and cross-boundary collaboration, no open plan will induce people to step over the invisible lines of hierarchy and control that impede interaction. At the same time, design thinking remains a key tool for creating an informed physical solution that acts as a sustainable platform for change.


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How can design and technology enable a more collaborative, dynamic and democratic workplace? Download the knowledge piece COCREATE.

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