Creative people are often encouraged to think outside the box, but how can we do that if we're forced to sit inside one? Our physical environments affect everything from our health and happiness to our positivity and productivity—and, in 2019, inspiration isn't often cultivated in a cube farm.
Today's workforce demands more from an office, including a workspace conducive to collaboration.
A 2018 "Active Workspace Study" by Qualtrics of 1,050 office workers age 18-35 found that 75% of those who work in a static, inactive work environment would prefer to be in an active workspace that encourages movement and collaboration. Conversely, 56% of those who already work in dynamic, active spaces would be searching for a new job within three months of being moved to a cube farm. Within a year, that number jumps to 65%.
To really take advantage of employees' desires to be collaborative, we must address the ineffective office design elements that can prevent them from working fluidly. Studies have found that where we work directly affects how we work, so being open and flexible to a few subtle design tweaks to our office can make a world of difference.
Innovation by Design
Too often, management can take a shortsighted approach to office design. Only focusing on the here and now doesn't account for the ever-changing dynamics and needs of a team. What works today might not cut it tomorrow. Some projects and tasks require lots of collaboration, while others don't. And we often deal with both types in the same week. Workspaces must be flexible so employees can have both "we" and "me" spaces—and achieving that flexibility requires some creativity.
One possible solution that allows us to configure all sorts of layouts is moveable walls and partitions. A big conference room can be broken into half a dozen smaller meeting rooms as needed, and vice versa.
No matter the approach, here are a few pointers for (re)designing an office that allows for both bigger brainstorming sessions and intimate focus spaces—and, ultimately, top-quality collaboration:
1. Keep it simple.
When it comes to overhauling a stale office, quick fixes make a big impact. Sweeping changes can be disruptive and ill-received, so starting with small steps is typically the preferred approach. Experiment with different lighting, place a few plants in the space or play low-volume music. This approach also keeps costs of the redesign initially low while the effects of the changes can be measured.
For example, my company now pumps white noise (and pleasant scents!) into parts of our workspace, and subtle, upbeat music in others, and the results have been noteworthy. These sensory additions provide a relaxed atmosphere and a conversational buffer of sorts, which makes workers less conscious about speaking aloud to others but leaves bystanders focused and undisturbed.
2. Emphasize communication.
Sometimes, we need to take down the physical walls that prevent open dialogue between co-workers. That could involve removing cubicles in favor of an open-floor plan or creating dedicated spaces for group discussion. The key is to arrange the space to encourage social interaction and convince our teams that collaboration is valued.
Workspaces must be flexible so employees can have both "we" and "me" spaces—and achieving that flexibility requires some creativity.
For us, that has also meant fostering a culture of brainstorming and knowledge-sharing, holding all-department standing meetings and company-wide town halls, and instituting open-door policies that make leaders more transparent and more approachable. After all, the 2018 Slack Future of Work Study, which was conducted by Kelton Global among 1,459 knowledge workers ages 18 and over in the U.S., found that 91% of employees are looking to feel closer to their work colleagues and 87% want their future companies to be transparent. Those are eye-opening numbers.
We are always searching for ways to naturally inspire conversation between our team members. Over time, these conversations build rapport and trust, which in turn leads to more effective work relationships.
3. Encourage activity.
People tend to take the path of least resistance in life. It's no different at work. Zipping off an email to a co-worker often provides an easier avenue to an answer, but walking over to chat about it can spur a productive, collaborative conversation. A corporate culture that encourages face-to-face interaction will give people the permission to put their heads together.
Our company encourages movement throughout each workday in myriad ways, from standing desks at every work station, to an on-site gym, to promoting volunteer work and community involvement. We combine activity and productivity through walking meetings, workspaces designed to encourage movement, and group wellness and fitness activities that encourage us to get to know our co-workers and cross-pollinate with less-familiar departments.
The people who participate in these activities form a bond that results in closer working relationships and, you guessed it, better collaboration.
4. Provide the necessary assistance.
Breakout rooms are great for fostering collaborative efforts, but are these spaces equipped with helpful tools? At the very least, these areas should offer ways to jot down notes and ideas while brainstorming or to hop on the internet and share screens.
Take stock of the tools and resources employees like to have when collaborating on projects and make it happen. Gathering that information can happen in a variety of ways, be it a series of internal surveys, 1-1 meetings or just informal conversations with co-workers. Make it as easy as possible for people to work together.
Navigating the inevitable ebbs and flows of business goes smoother when teams are given the power to perform, and a fair percentage of that power comes from an office's physical characteristics. If we commit to building an environment where interaction and teamwork are second nature, morale will benefit and our bottom lines will improve. Let's not box in our employees' potential.
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