Building Work Environments that Spark Collaboration

By: Elizabeth Mixson

It’s no secret that cross-functional collaboration is key to business growth and innovation. Nor is it breaking news that one of the most powerful tools for fostering employee interaction is office design. As Jenna Geigerman, Director, Real Estate & Strategy at CITRIX puts it, “the entire purpose for the workplace and workspaces is for people to work together in one place – otherwise everyone would work at home and save the cost of the real estate. Companies strive to amplify ideas and effort through interactions where 1+1 = 3.” 

However, all too often, spaces that are intended to facilitate human interaction do just the opposite. For example, though originally conceived to boost collaboration, conversation and creativity, the open office layout has actually had the opposite effect of it’s original intent.  According to 2018 research by the Royal Society, after one organization moved to an open office plan, workers spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions. Meanwhile, email use rose 67% and IM use went up 75%. 

So why do some collaboration spaces fail while others succeed? We spoke to close to a dozen industry leaders to find out and below is a summary of what we learned. 

#1 Listen To Your Employees 

Engineering interactive spaces that work requires more that just a surface level understanding of space usage and employee desires. To A.) truly understand what employees expect from and how they engage with their work environments and B.) ensure employees embrace these new spaces, office design leaders go beyond the traditional means of measurement by truly engaging with and emphasizing with their users from the start. As John Bonano, Project Manager of Innovation And Design at Citrix explains, “collaboration spaces fail when you don’t work with the user in co-designing them. Success requires communication and then over communication. Observation and then more observation. Environmental interaction cannot be tracked from a golden tower. However, if you work with your users to identify what they need and work with them to make the space great, than they’re going to be bought in from day one.”  

Michelle Caldwell, NA Digital Workplace Transformation Lead at Avanade, confirmed that in order for collaboration spaces to succeed, office design leaders have to “listen to their employees and deliver the experiences that they desire.” From sensors to employee feedback surveys, there are a number of ways companies can go about collecting and synthesizing employee feedback. Scott Hazard, the Head Of Global Real Estate at Atlassian shared, “historically, we at Atlassian relied heavily on Workplace Surveys to collect both space and experience feedback. However, we are starting to experiment in-parallel with the Dialogue model with each function to ensure we are asking the right/relevant questions and having a two-way conversation about what’s working, what could improve, and what we are all learning about space usage and evolving programming needs at a functional AND individual level. We also present at times throughout the year in our weekly Global Town Hall where we share company-wide updates around our workplace strategy and share the current round of experimentation and testing that we are iterating and evolving.”

Two people-focused, problem solving approaches frequently mentioned by those we spoke with were human-centered design and design thinking. “By embracing human-centric design, we're able to create different spaces with different typologies space. For example, or proprietary CG flux app allows a member to book a conference room, pay for their membership, to use the presentation tools in meeting rooms, and even order food and beverages from a nearby cafe or our own in vTech Café,” Jacob Bates, Chief Executive Officer of Commongrounds told us. 

The process starts with establishing “empathy” with the user through interviews, focus groups and observations to gain an in-depth understanding about what employees really need and want out of their interactive spaces. The second step is ideation follow by prototyping and experimentation. Using prototypes, models and demos to test your future state vision on your users, you can then use their feedback to continuously improve and evolve your prototype before you actually implement it in full.  As William Martin, Senior Director of Real Estate And Facilities, at HMS explained, “I think culture changes over time and test pilots are the safest way to get teams to try new things while maintaining the safety of what they currently have. Regular follow up visits to the space and employee feedback help inform us whether they are taking full advantage of the space or if they need more communication/training.”

#2 Change Management

“I’ve often said that in this day and age, Facility Management should be renamed Change Management.” William Martin of HMS told us. If employees don’t understand the where, why and how of new collaboration spaces they may not use them at all. This is why having a comprehensive change management plan as well as mechanisms for open dialogue in place is critical for success. 

“The operational business units are key stakeholders that we need to partner with to both understand how they currently work and encourage them to try new ways of working. I think culture changes over time and test pilots are the safest way to get teams to try new things while maintaining the safety of what they currently have. Regular follow up visits to the space and employee feedback help inform us whether they are taking full advantage of the space or if they need more communication/training,” William continued.
Michelle Caldwell, NA Digital Workplace Transformation Lead at Avanade agrees, “change management is one of the most important components of success here. Leadership can shift culture and the tone for new ways of working but they have to buy in themselves and lead by example. Once employees believe leadership is committed, will listen, put the investment forward for the change to happen and then invest in showing them how to work differently the rest is history. “ However, she also cautioned, “these initiatives are not ‘one and done’ but rather an ever evolving journey towards the future.”

At Citrix, Jenna and John explained that, for one recent project, they set up an “orientation session” to show employees how to make the most of the new space. For the training, they set up “stations showing how to use some new technology (like touch-screen displays and digital whiteboards), how to optimize a workstation (tips and tricks to use a Dell Ultra-wide monitor), and how to adjust furniture like the ergonomic chairs. This really helped reduce the hurdle of engaging in a new space where it’s unclear how to use the technology or uncertain what behaviors are supported by the environment.”  

#3 Location, Amenities & Technology     
Sometime it’s the small things that lead to failure. Simple mistakes such as poor location, uncomfortable seating, bad lighting or other seemingly minor issues can absolutely kill an otherwise promising collaborative space.
The most frequently mentioned issues were:
  • Poor placement  (like a busy traffic corridor)
  • Outfitted with incorrect furnishings (short chairs, couches, etc. that are uncomfortable)
  • Do not have working surfaces, power and other basic tools for doing work
  • Not equipped with right technology (or the tech doesn’t work or is too complicated)
  • Promotes noise in a “quiet” area
  • Lack of privacy (the space is too public for open conversation)

At Instacart, Warren Kleban, Director, Real Estate & Workplace, explains, “We put a heavy emphasis of putting design/facilities dollars into making open and collaboration spaces both attractive and user friendly to encourage our employees to use them throughout the day. Some examples of this are adding white boards, convenience outlets, soft seating for multiple concurrent users to our open areas to encourage collaboration and work in these spaces rather than an enclosed meeting room. We have designed our convenience cafes, and dining areas to be our main locations for human and social interaction. By providing a rotating and engaging fruit and vegetable program we find that there are many spontaneous conversations that originate based on the surprise and delight elements of the changes in this area while employees prepare their snacks or meals. We have emphasized booth and smaller interaction size tables and chairs to promote comfort at meal times, as well as frame the area for conversations, and encourage new employees and veterans to invite people to join them and engage as our team is rapidly growing.