Collaboration often refers to tools, which are critical enablers. But collaboration is about more than tools! Collaboration, as the name of this blog suggests, is largely about culture. There are many factors involved in instilling the culture of collaboration, and one key element is physical workplace design. Smart organizations embarking on an enterprise collaboration strategy should consider whether the physical workplace encourages and reinforces the culture of collaboration.
For years, the only major workplace design choice for most businesses was either private offices or cubicles. There are advantages and disadvantages to both private offices and cubicles. Private offices give team members better concentration but also create barriers and can discourage spontaneous interaction with colleagues. Cubicles may encourage greater interaction and collaboration with colleagues, but this is a generalization because there are many types of cubicles. Some, particularly the high-walled variety, are more like private offices.
I spent my early career in newsrooms in which most people sit shoulder-to-shoulder or across from one another with minimal, if any, dividers. The bosses usually have private offices on the perimeter. Financial trading rooms and police stations also use this “bullpen” approach. To meet with a colleague, all a bullpen dweller needs to do is shout across the room or start talking to the person at the next desk—no appointment necessary.
Workplace designers are now focusing on new, open approaches that advance the bullpen several steps. The basic concept is that team members need a variety of workplace environment options; they can select among these options on the fly depending on the task at hand. Environments may include lounge-oriented settings with easy chairs, café-type arrangements with stools and shared desks where people can plug in their laptops on a whim.
Intel, which famously has put every team member including the CEO in a cubicle, is now reconsidering this approach. According to an October 15 story by Don Clark in The Wall Street Journal, Intel plans to test some innovative, more open environments that more closely fit how people work. This approach may also enhance collaboration. Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard have conducted similar pilot programs. It’s ironic that these Silicon Valley companies, which have developed technologies enabling interaction among geographically-dispersed teams, are now focused on enabling face-to-face collaboration within their organizations. But it makes sense! As tools enable more effective collaboration at a distance, our ability to collaborate face-to-face needs work. The physical workplace is a key consideration.