Building a Collaborative Workplace

Traditional offices, with cubicles and individual offices, are less common today than they were even a decade ago. Open offices with high ceilings, long tables, and minimal partitioning are becoming the new norm. (However, there has been a significant amount of pushback on the open office layout, in favor of traditional individual offices.)

A key driver of this transition is due to an increased need for constant collaboration and creativity. Common questions at job interviews are “What do you bring to a team?”, “Can you describe a time where your actions helped your team to succeed?”, and others of the same ilk. It is clearer today than ever before that company success and individual success depend on team success, and teams are built on collaboration.

In today’s increasingly interconnected world, people need to constantly keep in touch with each other, and with partners from around the world. Furthermore, today’s fast-paced technology has opened up more spaces for creativity, which also thrives on collaboration. The need for a collaborative workplace prompts employers and building managers to ask: How exactly do I build a collaborative workplace? Though the first step to creating a collaborative workplace is picking a building, we’ve detailed three ways that any employer can transform the interior into a collaborative workplace.

1. Common Areas

Psychologists Leon Festinger and Stanley Schachter, and sociologist Kurt Back began investigating how friendships formed in the late 1940s. Westgate West, a housing development created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for returning servicemen and their families, served as their research lab.

Contrary to the idea about values and beliefs as the basis for lasting friendships, Festinger, Schachter, and Back found that proximity, leading to frequent casual interactions, was a necessity for building friendships. Individuals who lived near the main door had more interactions with other residents of the building, and were more likely to build meaningful relationships. Proximity defines with whom we become friends—we tend to adopt similar beliefs in the process of those friendships.

Fifty years later, Westgate West served as an inspiration to Steve Jobs while he redesigned Pixar’s offices. Pixar originally siloed computer scientists, animators, and executives in three separate buildings. Given that each of these groups does vastly different kinds of work, they probably have different ways of thinking about and solving problems. Recognizing that separating the three groups would hinder creative problem-solving and brainstorming, Jobs created a single, enormous space to house all three groups.

Pixar’s offices are said to be one of the most collaborative workspaces in the world. To promote collaboration, employers must provide spaces in which employees can interact, both professionally and casually. Many collaborative office spaces accomplish this by avoiding cubicles and personal offices altogether; these opt for open floor plans with tables, chairs, and couches, where employees can all see each other.

Other offices have opted to create multiple common areas, in addition to offices and cubicles. These common areas can include lounge chairs, couches, coffee tables, and a variety of interactive furniture such as ball pits and board games. Common spaces like these bring employees together in a casual setting, promoting camaraderie and collaboration.

2. Access to Food

Google also uses some of the same concepts in their offices. For example, because the elevators are so slow, Google built vertical ladders that connect adjacent floors of its office and allow employees to easily get from one floor to another. The ladders allow for employees to “casually collide”—the same frequent, casual interactions that Festinger, Schachter, and Back, as well as Pixar’s office, encourage.

In addition, Google’s New York City office also notes that all parts of the office were within 150 feet of restaurants, cafeterias, or a kitchen. Not only do those provide a common space, but food also brings people together. Having impromptu discussions over snacks or a meal creates bonds, and can ultimately foster increased motivation, productivity, and happiness in the workplace.

Most offices have kitchens in which employees can store their food, and make coffee and tea. Others incorporate larger eating areas that have food for purchase, and tables to eat at. The example of Google makes it clear there is no such thing as too many food-related spaces.

In addition to designating several spaces specifically for food and eating, some companies provide free snacks and meals to employees. Though these companies are in the minority, they might provide fresh fruit, small snacks, and small quantities of alcohol to employees, as well as a catered lunch or two during the week. This brings people together, but also communicates a culture of care in the workplace.

3. Creative Office Culture

Fostering a creative office culture is as much about the built space as it is about the atmosphere that employers create. Setting the metaphorical foundations for a collaborative workplace include:
  • Communicate that collaboration is expected from all employees, and define what that means in the context of each employee’s specific position.
  • Set goals for the team, which helps contextualize individual efforts.
  • Encourage team members to question, brainstorm, and provide feedback, by setting an example, providing soft skills training, and being non-judgmental.
  • Include as many team members in as many decisions as possible to build cohesion.
  • Familiarize team members with one another in order to set up positive working relationships and leverage each employee’s strengths.
There are several ways to accomplish these goals. First, pepper the office with whiteboards or chalkboards—these encourage team members to brainstorm and plan together, and provide a natural place in which to meet.

Second, purposely schedule meetings to occur in collaborative common spaces. Sitting on lounge chairs or couches, and brainstorming on a whiteboard, is more conducive to collaboration and team-building than is a traditional meeting in a conference room.

Third, plan team-building activities. You can opt for small, casual get-togethers, such as team lunches, spontaneous off-site meetings, or an ice cream social. Large events, such as retreats, potlucks, and office socials can also go a long way toward bringing employees together.

Final Thoughts

The era of individual offices and cubicles, whether good or bad, is on its way out. Spaces that encourage people to discuss, eat, and relax together are becoming the norm in today’s working world. Any building or house can be turned into a collaborative workspace, which is definitely more about the internal arrangement than external features. Based on social science research, and the actual practices of businesses like Pixar Animation Studios and Google, these three ways can turn any space into a collaborative one.

This is a guest post by Haley Perkins at Barrett Properties.