“The nature of work has changed,” writes design consultant Dorothy Deasy in a 2007 paper on office interior design. “The balance has been tipped so that work is no longer primarily an alone function but rather a collaborative one.”
Such a shift means that office interior design plays a greater role in encouraging collaboration between colleagues. And where collaboration goes, productivity often follows. Design firm Gensler reports that companies report productivity increases when they create environments that invite collaboration, by providing space for people to interact, for instance.
The research points to a new ideal: a workplace that balances collaboration and privacy. This involves an office interior design paradigm that permits both the ability to do distraction-free solo work for workers and teams, and the ability to support impromptu interactions. A study conducted by BOSTI Associates, a workplace planning and design consultancy, found that when an office interior design addressed these abilities, “individual performance jumped 4 percent to 5 percent, team performance 23 percent. Job satisfaction rose 23 percent.”
What happens in a workplace that encourages collaboration? First, teams tend to make decisions faster, as the ability to make crucial decisions are devolved to the rank-and-file. Second, open-access workspaces support team building efforts, accelerating group cohesion and improving team effectiveness.
Workplaces that succeed in inviting collaboration seem to balance three factors, according to the Harvard Business Review.
Proximity: Colleagues working on common projects should be located as close to each other as possible, minimizing distance traveled and potential for interruption inherent in each meeting. The office interior design should naturally direct traffic to shared spaces, and allow them to stay there.
Privacy: If workers want to focus on their jobs without distraction, the spaces should allow them to do so. If they want to collaborate without being overheard, the space should let them do that, too. “This gives workers the freedom to speak freely, creating an atmosphere of expression and trust,” opines consultant Lisa Gardner. “Sometimes an open floor space plan can actually inhibit collaboration, as employees may feel vulnerable about being overheard and overexposed.”
Permission: Policies that encourage collaboration should be encouraged by the leadership. They can send positive signals by providing comfortable furniture and modeling desired behaviors.
An office interior design that invites collaboration provides for all 3 P’s, no less. “Having only one or two usually isn’t enough, and over- or under-emphasizing any of the three can backfire,” the Harvard Business Review authors warn. “Build flexibility into your design so that you can test permutations, and measure the designʼs effects.”
The success of the 3 P’s revolves around the use of informal spaces in the office – a coffee corner, or impromptu meeting rooms. These spaces encourage informal meetings, which in turn build trust and encourage the free flow of ideas between colleagues, completing the collaboration circuit.
“Informal spaces may exude a “personality” that helps members connect and relate,” writes Dorothy Deasy, noting that her research finds an association between informal spaces and a perception of “better” meetings. “Meetings that were more high energy, involved freer exchange of ideas, more enjoyable, felt more relaxed and continued for longer than anticipated because of the productivity of the content tended to take place in informal spaces.”
For more on the link between productivity and office interior design, download our white paper: “Designing for Productivity: Key Factors in Building the Ideal Office Environment” (PDF, 210KB).
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