Does Your Physical Workspace Inspire Collaboration?

In my book  Capture the Mindshare and the Market Share Will Follow,  I have a story about a hospital in New Mexico that bridged the cultural gap between their Caucasian and Native American constituents so successfully, that when it was time to build a new wing they carried that collaboration right into the physical structure.

After the design team who built the wing, Kahler Slater, was recognized eight times in a row as a Great Place to Work® of Small & Medium Workplaces, they decided to study the common factors that made for great environmental experiences and to share the results of their study. Even in a home office or small business setting, recognizing what contributes to productivity can influence simple but significant decisions such as what kind of lamps or window treatments to buy, where to place your computers, or how to arrange your overall physical space.

Despite the emergence of the open-space cubicle world, the objective of these supposedly egalitarian workplaces is probably more a function of keeping costs down than encouraging people to collaborate. In actuality, the need for distraction-free environments is essential to productivity, which Kahler Slater accomplishes with multiple conference rooms for different needs and group sizes.  According to the Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation, most of us are engaged in solo “head down” tasks for approximately half of our workday.  Thus, having a workplace that provides some if not total privacy, white noise, and available-to-all private spaces such as conference rooms or patios is critical for top performance.  Conversely, given the emphasis most companies put on teamwork, having spaces that accommodate group activities like project meetings or brainstorming sessions is also important.  But what some companies may overlook is the need for spontaneous interaction in informal lounges or cafes that can offer conversational opportunities that might not happen in a more formal or disconnected setting.

With as much time as most of spend on the job, it’s important to honor our unique personalities and preferences where we can, especially in our immediate space if not in the common areas.  Taking into account right or left-handedness seems obvious, but ask a leftie who’s been forced to work at a right-hand desk for a decade and you’ll see that it’s not something that’s always taken into account.  As someone who spends hours in front of a computer each day, I can tell you firsthand how critical proper ergonomics in your chair and keyboard, as well as task lighting and placement of phone, printer and electronics can be for both comfort and efficiency.  And why would you want to pay for health-related problems like chronic back pain if you can prevent them in the first place?

Many companies go a step further in terms of personalization, allowing their employees to completely customize their workstation or office, as long as it’s not offensive to others.  If you take the tour, led by a “culture guide,” of Zappos.com’s famously quirky headquarters in Nevada, you’ll see Tiki hut and Mardi Gras-inspired cubicle decor including jungle foliage, hanging beads and dorm-like rock posters.  While not all companies may be in favor of flying their freak flags quite as high as Zappos, the days of restricting personal touches like family photos, plants or office toys are long gone, as well they should be.

Ideally, balancing structural features such as access to daylight, lack of glare, and temperature control with optimal physical layout can maximize workflow. Consider the proximity of individuals and teams that routinely work together, as well as access to support people and technical capabilities that make work life easier and more pleasant.  Factor in frequent office shifts and physical moves of employees and you’ll see that furniture and technology that adapts easily to change can make life easier while it keeps costs down.  Finally, in what Kahler Slater rather poetically terms “Clear Wayfinding,” you’ll want to ensure that people not only find their destinations easily but also intersect in places that encourage interaction, such as hallways, open paths and alcove-adjacent spaces. 

At Kahler Slater, everyone works in a cubicle and the conference rooms, which are plentiful, are used for focused work, phone calls or large gatherings.  There’s a wine bar in the corner where the staff holds receptions, gathers for lunch, does a group crossword puzzle and meets most days at 4 pm for something - or nothing.  As Jennifer Schlimgen, architect and “Experience Designer” at Kahler Slater, says, “Last Friday was Nice Day at 4, because it was a nice day.” Sounds nice all right!