Tips for Collaborative Workplace Design published in Free Press Business pages

by Matt Bushey, March 21, 2013

The following article appeared in the ‘Innovate’ Business section of the Burlington Free Press on Thursday March 21, 2013.  It is also available for viewing online.

Creative Corner: Not Behind Closed Doors
Designing for teamwork in the workplace
In today’s workplace, one of the biggest challenges we face is how to foster creative teamwork while allowing for privacy and concentration. Most office workers spend their time split between group meetings and individual tasks, so it is difficult to apply a one-size-fits-all solution and expect good results.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently announced plans to eliminate her company’s work-at-home policy, ordering everyone back to the office. In explaining the change, the company cited the need for greater communication and collaboration.

This rationale follows the general industry trend toward a more open and collaborative workplace. There is an increased recognition that the most creative problem-solving does not occur by an individual behind closed doors, but rather by a group effort of people putting their heads together.

Over the past few years the walls have been coming down, and more people are moving out of the private office into an open office setting. The problem here – and the reason many Yahoo employees had chosen to work from home – is that the visual distractions and noisy interruptions of the office prevent them from focusing on their work.

This is one of the biggest challenges we face with the design of the workplace: How to provide a comfortable balance between teamwork and individual privacy.

The first place we start is with the design and planning of the open office workstation. Repetitive rows of Dilbert-style cubicles do a poor job of providing privacy, and they are not conducive to group work. One solution is to break out of the box and think about alternative planning modules, or scatter workstations in a layout that gives each person a unique boundary and line of sight. The in-between spaces then become additional opportunities for impromptu collaboration, while promoting individuality.

Another method to support conflicting work styles is to provide a variety of spaces that people can use throughout the day as their needs change. Working in an open office is more accepted if other spaces are available for a private phone call or a quiet one-on-one meeting with a colleague. These are not scheduled rooms. They are free for anyone to use on a moment’s notice.

Finally, we look at the design of group spaces that maximize the benefits of working together. Often the most creative problem solving comes not from scheduled meetings but from spontaneous interactions among coworkers. Conference rooms are still necessary, but informal, social spaces are becoming more important. A cafeteria or lunchroom can double as a social meeting space, with furnishings and technology that can turn a casual encounter into a productive work session.

The move by Yahoo is a sign that companies are starting to rethink the role of the workplace. In this age of remote access and virtual meetings, the message is clear that face-to-face interaction is still valued for successful teamwork. Ultimately to be effective, our spaces need to be flexible and responsive to meet the needs of groups and individuals alike.

Matthew Bushey, AIA, LEED AP is a registered architect and the lead project manager for the Workplace Interiors Studio at TruexCullins Architecture and Interior Design.

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