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Building the Collaborative Office

Reading Time: 4 minutes

It’s no secret that we’re all trying to do more with less. A survey conducted last May stated that “more than half of U.S. employees feel overworked”. So how do we cope with having to do more with less? We collaborate. In school and in work, we naturally work in teams to accomplish more. I believe our natural inclination to collaborate stems from that old attitude of divide and conquer. However, because we spend so much time collaborating at work, why aren’t our offices better designed to take advantage of it?

The typical office – does this floor plan look strangely familiar to most of you? In my opinion, the above image resembles most offices everywhere to some extent. The rows of cubicles, the meeting rooms pushed out to the periphery, the removed kitchen area, this has been the typical office layout dating back I don’t know how long.

What we think of as the modern office was created in the 1960’s with the dawn of the cubicle.

According to Wikipedia the modern office cubicle was created in 1968 by Robert Propst of Herman Miller as part of his Action Office System. Propst created the modern cubicle in response to the amount of information being processed by the modern worker. According to Propst’s studies of workplace habits at that time,

” ‘People were being rapidly deluged with information they didn’t know how to manage or purge…All kinds of interesting things came before their eyes momentarily, then got filed.’ Every stored piece of paper, says Propst, has but a one in 20 chance of being retrieved, so vital information that should have been kept in circulation was being lost. The prevailing environment was one in which, he says, ‘workers performed meaningless, cog-turning activities where they had only to execute tasks.’” (Metropolis Magazine)

By the 1960s the amount of information available to employees had increased dramatically and something was needed to help deal with the information overload.

Fast-forward forty four years to today. The issues Propst was attempting to deal with in the 1960s sound strangely familiar to the ones we’re battling with today – information overload, employee productivity, and organization. While a lot has changed since the invention of the office cubicle: computers, mobile phones, snowboarding, video games…the amount of information the modern employee has access to and actively uses in decision making is still overwhelming and impairing them. We’ve talked about the increasing problem modern employees are experiencing with information overload in previous posts – Reining in the Information Deluge. The major difference in how we’re working today is that often times collaboration is a necessity. Yet, if the way we are working is changing, why aren’t offices? I think it’s time for the workplace to get a much needed face lift.

The Collaboration Commons is just one of many ideas being kicked around as the next generation office. What’s interesting to note about these new Collaboration Commons floor plans is that the idea is actually catching on. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, author Adam Richardson actually visits one of the next generation offices. Turns out Citrix, the makers of the Collaboration Software GoToMeeting, has constructed an open collaboration space inside their San Jose, California offices.

Citrix’s San Jose collaboration is an open 2,000 sq. ft. space designed to receive a lot of natural light – which, turns out, is important in stimulating employee productivity. Everything in the space is on wheels. This allows for the collaboration commons to be configured in whatever way is needed to meet all the various demands of a meeting. Also, instead of being closed-off like a traditional conference room, the collaboration room is enclosed by glass. Citrix says that this was an intentional decision because they wanted “passers-by to see the action happening and to see how we work.”(HBR) Here’s what I liked most about their collaboration commons: the room can’t be reserved ahead of time! Unlike conference rooms which are booked in advance. Citrix wanted to prohibit reserving the space since doing so “kills the spontaneity.”

I think it’s about time more companies seriously consider the benefits of these next generation offices. Not only do they increase collaboration, productivity, innovation but also transparency.

Part of the appeal of having these spaces is that should teams decide to take a break, their work in progress is left up on a board in the room. This allows people to “look at notes and sketches left on the whiteboard, then go to others and discuss them.” The idea is that by having others stop in and take a look at a team’s project it may spark outside conversation and more possible ideas potentially resulting in better results.

So, move on over office floor plans it’s time for an update!


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