We will place greater emphasis on the physical workspace for brainstorming and creativity in the future, so how can we design optimal collaborative spaces?
Countless surveys over the last 18 months have shown that employees are mostly interested in using the workplace for collaboration and socialising.
So how can you set them up with the best space to do that?
Thankfully, this is an area researchers have dedicated a lot of attention to.
One such researcher, Elizabeth Sander, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Bond University, helped HRM unpack three research-backed ways employers could improve their collaborative spaces at work.
1. Privacy is key
Proponents of the open-plan office often claim it increases collaboration (possibly incorrectly), the thinking being that employees will jump in and help each other if they can see or hear a colleague struggling.
Somewhere along the line, this developed into the creation of open breakout spaces designed for collaborative work.
The idea behind these spaces was that they should be central and, importantly, open.
However, according to Sander, this approach could be working against us.
“Something my research has found is that people struggle to concentrate and focus in open plan offices,” says Sander.
“This leads people to get so frustrated and overwhelmed that they actually don’t want to collaborate with their colleagues.” They might be more likely to work solo with headphones on, or save their creative work for their work from home days.
Many employees need acoustic privacy (that is, reduced noise and the ability to converse without disturbing others), says Sander, not just for deep work but also to collaborate and discuss ideas.
“When it’s noisy and distracting, and there are constant interruptions, it drains our cognitive resources and takes away our ability to generate new ideas.”
In a study from the Centre for the Built Environment (CBE), researchers found that open team spaces were used less than enclosed conference rooms.
Employees felt there were problems with the noise distractions of the open spaces, for both the collaborators and those trying to work around them.
The research also revealed that the fear of distracting coworkers made it harder to concentrate while using the open collaboration spaces.
What this means for employers:
Employees need private spaces to chat and collaborate.
“If employees are using the office mostly to work closely with their coworkers then workplaces need to provide more areas that have visual and acoustic privacy,” says Sander.
If your workplace is going to become a collaboration hub, consider increasing the number of meeting rooms available to employees, or create sectioned-off areas where employees can be loud and energetic when being creative.
This helps to facilitate a process known as ‘burstiness’ – that is, allowing employees to bounce off each other’s excited energy and speak over each other (politely) to build on other people’s ideas. It’s about creating bursts of energy quickly, which gets our synapses firing and the good ideas rolling in.
Burstiness has been described as a jazz performance – a collection of noisy instruments harmonising together to create great music – or group reaching its “creative peak” and feeling free to contribute their ideas freely without fear of judgment.
2. Show your work
Another interesting revelation to come out of the CBE’s study was that collaborative spaces need to support “distributed cognition” and shared knowledge.
It is quite likely that your organisation already has some processes in place to capture and share knowledge. Collaboration would have been impossible during remote work without it.
“Many organisations had remote workforces prior to the pandemic. We need to take the [digital] tools we used to collaborate then and apply them to the [physical] workplace,” says Sander.
This could be a low-cost solution such as everyone working off the same online document when in a collaboration meeting. Or you could implement more comprehensive tech platforms, such as online collaboration tools.
For the physical workplace, you might consider installing screens or projectors in the meeting rooms, so everyone can work off the same screen and get those bursty moments happening.
These collaborative tools shift employees’ attention from individual knowledge to a collective thinking encouraging teamwork, the report found.
This supports expert thinking on collaboration. During a Qualtrics webinar last week, Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant said that while we brainstorm more effectively as individuals, we refine ideas better in collaboration with others.
Collective working might also help employees solve problems they’re facing or create entirely new ideas, says Sander.
“Our brain scaffolds information together, so you might not be working directly on something right then, but your brain will pick up on a bit of information and loop back to it when you’re working on another problem.”
What this means for employers:
Consider putting practices in place to encourage knowledge sharing when collaborating.
For example, if you’re using a shared document, create that prior to the meeting and attach it to the meeting invite, so people know what they should be working off. Or if you’re in a video call, utilise the messaging function for people to share all their ideas, then you can work through them all as a group and hone the best of the bunch.
“Not every office needs a slippery-dip to encourage creativity, but we know locking everyone in the boardroom for 12 hours isn’t going to work either.”– Elizabeth Sander, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Bond University
3. Space to play
If you want to step up your collaboration spaces, consider how you can encourage playfulness.
One innovative way some organisations have approached this is with LEGO. A program called LEGO Serious Play (LSP) introduces LEGO to the boardroom. It requires participants to answer questions or explain ideas through LEGO blocks.
The creators of LSP say it helps engage our subconscious mind and bring new ideas to the fore. Some people who have participated in LSP say it encourages quieter employees to speak because they are sharing their ideas in a new way.
Of course, LEGO may not be suitable for all workplaces, so when trying to inspire play it’s important you find what works for your people.
“Not every office needs a slippery-dip to encourage creativity, but we know locking everyone in the boardroom for 12 hours isn’t going to work either,” says Sander.
“Different processes help us tap into our unconscious mind,” she says. “For example, views of nature often help.”
You might want to get employees out of the office altogether, suggests Sander. Try walking meetings. Or include creative imagery in your space to encourage their creative juices to flow – this might even include displaying some of the employees’ best work in an effort to inspire and motivate them.
What this means for employers:
Give employees the tools to share ideas in new ways. Perhaps some of your more visual employees can better explain their ideas via a sketch, for example.
A fairly cheap solution could be making butchers paper and texters available in all collaborative spaces. Or personal mini whiteboards, if you’re looking for a low waste option. Employees can scribble their ideas down and let their unconscious mind take over.
Sander’s final advice is make your decision with the user in mind.
“People want to have a contribution to the space that they’re basically going to spend a third of their lifetime in,” she says.
“It’s really important to involve your people, to understand their needs and what’s going to bring out the best in them.”
AHRI’s upcoming award ceremony includes an accolade celebrating workplace creativity. Find out who’ll take home this year’s awards by signing up to attend the free virtual ceremony.