Office Buildings: Help Occupants Work Well With Others

July 1, 2010
Make space - and ideas - easier to share by designing your office building to facilitate collaboration

From the sandbox to the corner office, people want to be associated with the phrase “works well with others.” In an office environment, working well with others doesn’t only depend on a personality trait; it also depends on whether an office building is set up to facilitate collaboration between building occupants.

To stay competitive, companies today are relying on the collective intelligence of their workforce. To encourage and promote the sharing of this intelligence, workstations are being developed to encourage this type of interaction, says Terry Carroll, market to intelligence manager for Kimball Office.

Design & Conquer
Office collaboration begins at the design stage. “When we start designing a building, the design isn’t just an arrangement of spaces,” says Bruce D. Turner with Bruce D. Turner Architect. “We start with programming, and then come up with flow diagrams in terms of the relationships of spaces between people, departments, etc. The architecture and design of the office building are all about reflecting the collaboration and working relationships between people.”
If the move toward a collaborative work environment is in your future, Carroll suggests considering the physical and cognitive needs of the occupants, as well as the overall layout.

Reed Smith LLP, a global law firm, achieved its goal of collaboration with its new Pittsburgh office. It established office collaboration with the layout of its space. “We encourage teaming with our staff,” explains Jim Rudisill, director of Pittsburgh market operations for Reed Smith. “Secretaries work in teams, and we integrate staff services and firm resources so they can better service the attorneys and clients.” Reed Smith used secretarial pods to encourage collaboration, as well as the strategic placement of service departments on various practice floors, a conference center, and the placement of the practice groups.

Balance Between Collaboration
There are two types of collaboration: formal and informal. Both of these are equally important in the work environment and must be accommodated. The key is to not only provide space for both types of exchanges, but also to balance the mix of these types of spaces.

“Provide an opportunity for formal and informal interaction, because that’s how people work,” says Turner. For example, you might have more conference rooms or meeting space available if formal interaction is more your organization’s style … but there should also be opportunities for informal interaction.
Examples of informal collaborative spaces should be offered inside and outside the workspace: lunchrooms, breakrooms, and outdoor courtyards with seating are all good examples. You may provide a very nice lunch area for people to interact informally; in a space like this, they may be able to accomplish something they wouldn’t be able to accomplish in a formal way during the workday, says Turner.

Informal collaborative spaces can consist of shared spaces between cubicles or nooks in hallways. “If people are working in cubicles, you may make the cubicles a little larger and have a shared space between them that becomes a counter space where you pull chairs around, roll a project out, and sit and talk about it instantaneously,” explains Turner.

Carroll likens office workers’ needs for impromptu collaboration to the layout of a newsroom. “In some offices, the interaction is spontaneous. There is a need for frequent impromptu meetings,” he says. “In these environments, it’s important to have individual space – yet it’s important for everyone to see one another and have room to meet without missing a beat.”

When you’re balancing space for formal and informal collaboration, the need for individual workspaces can’t be forgotten. Lack of privacy and the noise level can be issues in an open-plan environment. Take time to understand the workers’ needs, and help design spaces to effectively meet the requests of those who will occupy the space.

Area Aesthetics
Collaborative spaces should be comfortable, welcoming spaces that people want to use. Why bother taking up valuable space for a conference room or lunchroom otherwise?

“These spaces need to be welcoming and inviting,” explains Turner. “If you’re providing a cold, dark, damp, and dank space, regardless of what you do to encourage that collaboration, people won’t want to be there and you’re not going to get collaboration. You have to think about the psychological effects of the space on the individual.”

As part of its building project, Reed Smith provided several office design options for its employees to choose from, from traditional to contemporary. “More than 145 offices were customized to fit the needs of the end-user,” Rudisill explains. “Allowing the Reed Smith attorneys to choose their own layouts and furnishings was a way for them to take ownership, which has had a positive effect.”

Open Door: More than a Policy
According to research conducted by Judith Heerwagen, a Seattle-based environmental psychologist, 90 percent of office interactions are unplanned and occur as a result of one employee visually monitoring the availability of another.

Knowing this, one of the challenges when it comes to creating collaborative environments is dealing with structural issues within a building. “If everybody walks into their offices and closes their doors in the morning, people can’t see or hear each other; they won’t be inclined to speak to each other,” says Turner. “You’re not establishing that immediate collaboration between those individuals because they don’t have any direct opportunity to communicate with one another – visually, acoustically, etc.”

Layout of private offices can contribute to the “closed-door effect.” Even if a worker has an open-door policy, if he/she sits in an office and faces a wall, that inhibits collaboration. “The door might be open, but if you can’t look into that room and make eye contact, you’re less inclined to stop and talk and interrupt,” says Turner.

Private offices should also be large enough to have at least one guest chair in the space.

The Spaces Between
The flow and interaction going on between workspaces is on a relatively small – yet important – scale. Where these workspaces are located in relation to the rest of the other workspaces can be on a much larger scale. “If you’re in a larger company, you can have problems with people separated by floors or by entire buildings in a multiple-building campus,” says Turner.

“The [Comcast Center in Philadelphia] consolidated all of its operations into one facility so their people could be more collaborative,” explains Turner as he describes the new Comcast Center building. At its previous location, employees were scattered across a number of floors and throughout a number of facilities.

It may not be possible to put all related personnel on the same floor, but you can make it easier for workers to collaborate by making the floors easily accessible. “Instead of making someone go to the elevator, you might develop an interior stairway where you can move from one floor to another just by running up and down as opposed to going out to the elevator bank and waiting for the elevator,” Turner explains.

Materials Matter
Advances in material technology have made a difference in interior spaces.

In the past, “A cubicle was made a certain way because there were limitations in terms of how they made modular office systems,” says Turner. “You used to buy [panel systems] and the only difference between them was how high the panels were.

These systems have evolved and grown – now systems are available with openings or glass, and may have wood or metal perforated materials instead of just fabric. These new systems are more inviting and give you more flexibility in terms of design.

There are plenty of ways to encourage collaboration in your building’s workspace. Choose a combination of the building’s physical layout, location of people within the space, layout of furniture within the area, and collaboration-friendly furniture to match the specific needs of your office.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so each company must evaluate the tradeoffs and decide what’s right for each functional area,” says Carroll.

Kylie Wroblaski ([email protected]) is associate editor for BUILDINGS.

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