Better Teamwork Through Better Workplace Design

Collaboration is the way we work now. In a 2008 BusinessWeek study of white-collar professionals, 82% reported they needed to partner with others throughout the day to get their work done. That means people don't just work together in meeting and conference rooms anymore. Collaboration now occurs all the time at personal desks and in hallways, or virtually via internet or smart phones, and it's often spontaneous and informal, rather than planned in advance.

Unfortunately our legacy work environments — dominated by offices or cubes — rarely match this new reality. To effectively do so, they need to adequately accommodate three types of work: "I work," which requires expertise, concentration and focus; "You & I work," which involves relatively simple collaboration among two people; and "We work," which embodies the highest level of content and context complexity, from multi-disciplinary expertise to multi-location and multi-technology platforms.

Yet most workplaces are still heavily anchored in "I work" designs. A report (PDF) from Gensler Architecture found that only half of the US workforce feels that their environment empowers them to innovate, while another white paper (PDF) from office design specialist Steelcase found that 70% of workers today waste up to 15 minutes just looking for a space to meet and 24% waste up to half an hour. Indeed, most workspaces provide little choice regarding where and how to work. Individual workstations separate people from one another, meeting spaces have to be reserved in advance, areas with audio privacy for video and teleconferencing are limited in number, and social spaces, if they exist, often lack power sources or WiFi. With mixed-presence team members, some co-located and other stationed globally and connected via technology, efficient collaboration is becoming a true challenge.

Organizations can address this problem by redesigning their workspaces around the following principles:

  1. Focus on four main activities. Employees need to have areas for concentrated work (such as unassigned individual workstations), emergent social exchange (free-flowing hallways), learning (rooms equipped with technology and tools), and collaboration (group spaces for co-creation). The key is to make sure the different types of spaces are integrated with each other and open to all, so people can freely choose where to be based on what they're doing.
  2. Vary the size of workspaces, and the technology with which they're equipped. Collaborative work happens best in spaces that accommodate a group of four to eight people physically or virtually or in a larger team space with multiple small pods where people can still see each other. It's also important to give everyone equal access to on-line and on-site information.
  3. Provide collaborative tools. Effective collaboration involves knowledge exchange, brainstorming, the inclusion of diverse perspectives, and scenario building. Companies must therefore provide tools like whiteboards that allow employees to record ideas and create a visual, side-by-side review of alternative solutions. Such tools are key enablers helping groups reach a shared understanding faster and more effectively.
  4. Give project teams a dedicated space. The concept of 'distributed cognition' suggests that thinking processes are embedded in the physical work environment. A team room can provide "cognitive space" to hold ideas and experiences. Returning to the same workspace each day, keeping meeting notes on the board, and leaving work samples and half-finished prototypes on tables between meetings can help teammates maintain a shared project mindset, sharpening their focus and speeding up the collaborative process.

Team collaboration is challenging enough without needing to attend to underperforming workspace. Companies like Skype, Cisco, and Pixar have already deployed cleverly designed work environments to best enable new value creation through collaboration. It's time to align the physical with the strategic.

This post is part of the HBR Insight Center on The Secrets of Great Teams.

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