Collaboration by Design

To create happier, more productive employees, take a closer look at your work environment.

As managers and executives sit in their offices and ponder ways to increase employee engagement, innovation and productivity, one a answer literally lies beneath their feet: the design of their organization’s workspaces.

“Workplace design does matter in terms of creativity and innovation,” says Holly Christian, a design director and workplace expert at Gensler, a global architecture, design and planning firm. “Workers need different types of spaces to be able to work effectively — they need variety and choice. One size doesn’t fit all and one environment doesn’t fit all.”

Optimally, workplaces should be designed to accommodate four different employee work modes, according to Gensler studies: stations where they can focus and get work done, open spaces where they can socialize and share knowledge, areas designed for collaboration, and places for training and learning, Christian says.

“It’s fair to say that workplace design is overlooked as a driver of innovation and productivity,” she notes. “Maybe it’s just that companies focus more on having the right people doing the right task, and not on the synergy a well-designed workplace can create. But more and more companies are becoming much more aware.”

A national workplace survey that Gensler performs every few years backs up this assertion. In the latest survey — completed in 2016 and representing the views of 4,000 employees across a wide variety of job roles, ages, industries and geographic locations — 1 in 3 workers say they enjoy an optimal workplace experience. That’s up from 1 in 4 workers in a 2013 survey. But that also means that the remaining two-thirds of respondents — mostly professional, technical and administrative workers — continue to struggle with problems caused by poorly designed workspaces.

In addition, workplaces that prioritize a healthy balance of both individual and group work report higher levels of job satisfaction and managerial relationships, plus employees find more meaning in their work. As the study notes, collaboration and connections do not occur in a vacuum, but in well-designed workplaces that encourage employee interaction.

Moreover, the survey revealed that innovators spend more time working away from their desks, not at them. In fact, employees that spend 80 percent or more of their time in an office report significantly lower levels of job satisfaction and find their work less meaningful. Furthermore, innovators typically have better-designed workspaces as well as more choices about where to work — and the freedom to choose what environment they prefer for the task at hand.

So what does all this mean for organizations with conventional workplace designs? After all, in an era of tight budgets, few companies have the financial resources to completely rework their floor plans/workspaces. In addition, most organizations aren’t likely to go all Silicon Valley on their workplaces and offer amenities such as pingpong and foosball tables, Legos in conference rooms (to inspire creativity) and “floating” chairs suspended from ceilings by chains.

“I think it’s fair to say a foosball table isn’t right for a lot of cultures. … We should dispel the myth of that as a gold standard,” Christian notes. “You have to design a physical space that pairs well with your culture — or the culture you’re trying to change.”

Some changes don’t require much investment, such as focusing on ergonomic workstations. This includes height-adjustable work surfaces, adjustable arms on monitors, phone headsets, and ergonomic chairs with many different adjustment options, she says.

As for larger changes, the proverbial how-do-you-eat-an-elephant approach — one bite at a time — applies here. “You can attack small areas,” Christian suggests. One example: Retrofit a traditional conference room with a stand-up table and more informal, lounge-style seating, or use a smaller room for meetings and turn the larger room into a more public area.

“Folks interact differently when stand-up tables are available. The dynamics are much different than sitting in big chairs,” she explains. “Meetings might be shorter or a little more impromptu. And while most older companies have bigger conference rooms, smaller rooms are more intimate and might be more effective.”

The ultimate goal is what Christian calls “a palette of places:” small team rooms as well as scattered stand-up tables and other “meet-up” areas where employees can informally brainstorm. This kind of cross-pollination of ideas yields richer solutions, she points out.

Some of these spaces can actually do double and triple duty. “We call them scrum tables — one counter where you can eat lunch or work solitarily or hold small meetings,” she says. These kinds of spaces encourage and allow employees to come together quickly, share ideas and then get back to work.

Of course, noise management is a big consideration in public areas. In some organizations, a healthy buzz is welcome, while others may put a premium on silence. “What’s good for one may not be good for the other,” Christian notes. Some companies issue headphones for employees to block out noise, while others opt for phone-booth-like cocoons for more intense, focused work in open areas.

As for organizations with multi-generational workforces, Christian says there’s typically no need to worry about contending with factions of employees that hold opposite views on workspace amenities and design. The most recent Gensler workplace survey showed that millennials and baby boomers generally all want the same thing: meaningful work and a healthy, well-designed space in which to do it — and one that reflects their organization’s culture.

But no matter what changes are made, management buy-in is critical. It serves no purpose to invest in creating small collaboration spaces if management still think the most productive employee is an employee sitting at a desk, or that small, impromptu gatherings are just an excuse for employees to goof off and avoid work.

“Leadership has to walk the walk,” Christian says. “Many times we’ve designed very cool collaborative hubs that no one uses because the ‘big guy’ isn’t using them. Management needs to endorse it and show it’s OK to use it.”

Christian says she even knows of law firms that are creating spaces known as “collaborative cafes” and turning coveted corner areas formerly reserved for senior-leadership offices into shared-use spaces — a welcome trend. As she puts it, “Organizations need more ‘we’ space and less ‘me’ space.” Call it innovation and collaboration by design.


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