Collaboration is one of the most powerful forces in the workplace. The pooling of skill sets and strengths can lead to improved problem solving, increased productivity, and more creativity. While overall collaboration time has increased by 50% over the last couple of decades, studies suggest that a collaboration-minded approach to workplace design could make that time even more beneficial. There are a number of methods to balance and nurture a collaborative culture, but I’m most interested in the idea of workplace design facilitating collaboration.
Optimizing a company’s workplace for collaboration can significantly strengthen its work culture (and its bottom line). It begs the question: Does the perfect collaboration space exist? The answer will be different for every business, but there are some crucial elements to include in a great collaboration space.
Facilitating Collaboration in the Built Environment
The ideal culture for collaboration comes from balancing individual and group work. That means workplace design has to prioritize both, which requires a thorough knowledge of an organization’s culture, work patterns, and work processes to determine the appropriate design for achieving proper space utilization. A designer needs to make the space reflect the values of the culture, and the physical layout is the foundation of that plan.
Individual workspaces are particularly important, as they help employees retain a sense of privacy and enhance task concentration. Additionally, workers should be able to seamlessly flow between solo and coworking spaces as needed. While it isn’t necessary to implement an open office design, it is important to allow for easy transitions between different kinds of spaces. Providing a variety of workspaces that allow workers to adapt to their day’s changing levels of engagement results in greater job satisfaction and group cohesiveness.
When it comes to collaboration, flexibility and variety of seating are essential. Large desks and tables, adjustable chairs, and standing/sitting options all promote collaboration. Access to whiteboards, office supplies, food and drink, and technology is also vital so that workers have as many resources as possible at their disposal. Certification programs like the WELL Building Standard spotlight this; one WELL feature focuses on Adaptable Spaces, which calls for areas designated as quiet zones as well as collaboration zones. Both of these area types can be enclosable or semi-enclosable rooms, but the seating is more specific. A quiet zone should have 3 seats or fewer, while a collaboration zone should have 3 seats or more plus a visual vertical surface (like a whiteboard) for sharing ideas or work.
Open shared or social spaces should also be designed with collaboration in mind. These types of spaces promote informal meetings and can often jumpstart impromptu collaboration. In these shared work areas, individuals may choose to work so as to make themselves accessible to others, which can lead to productive group sessions. When designed for this sort of on-the-spot collaboration, shared spaces like lobbies, lounges, and kitchens can result in just as much collaboration as a dedicated collaboration space.
No matter the space, designing for unplanned interaction can help promote worker connectivity and foster a collaborative environment. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the clever design of the Pixar campus. Under Steve Jobs’s command, the only bathroom was located in the center of the facility. As a result, employees would bump into each other, strike up conversation, and birth new ideas. The bathroom served as an anchor space to bring people together and stimulate interactions. It’s a simple concept to implement into building design, yet its impact on relationship building is immense. Many top performing businesses use anchor spaces in their design, including Google––its NYC campus ensures that no part of the office is more than 150 feet from food so that workers can “casually collide.”
This concept applies to multi-level office spaces as well. Perkins+Will Senior Interior Designer Sarah Stanford recommends placing stairs centrally and creating anchor spaces on different levels so that workers naturally end up moving throughout the building. When flow is maximized, collaboration is encouraged, and that’s true in any office setting, whether it’s three rooms or three floors.
Biophilic Design: A Collaborative Catalyst
In order to be great for collaboration, a built environment needs to include the right indoor elements. In general, indoor elements need to enhance occupant health; in an office, this ensures that employees are performing and feeling their best. The individual materials selected can have a noticeable effect on employee wellness and happiness, which can in turn affect collaboration. To provide the best indoor experience, many designers are taking a biophilic design approach. Both the WELL Building Standard and Living Building Challenge certification programs use biophilia to drive design. Each certification program requires that the team view the design from a biophilic perspective by considering how occupants can engage in the space in a manner that incorporates nature.
Incorporating sustainable design is also important; workspaces that are sustainably designed have been shown to improve productivity. In actual practice, implementing biophilic and sustainable design in the office involves using natural materials, balancing indoor elements, and creating organic, flexible spaces. Here’s what that looks like.
Using Natural Materials to Foster Harmony
In their report “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design,” Terrapin Bright Green identified the key tenets of biophilic design and how they belong in the built environment. Many of these patterns can be incorporated using natural elements and materials such as reclaimed wood, cork, and greenery. Wood is a particularly beneficial material when it comes to collaboration. A report by Planet Ark cited several studies in which wood was noted to increase social interaction. Your office doesn’t have to get a complete overhaul, though; even a little wood can go a long way. Strategic placement of rustic or reclaimed wood in a collaborative space (i.e., wood placed as a focal point) can positively impact how employees interact.
The Indoor Elements You Need to Consider for Collaboration
Indoor environmental quality (IEQ) reflects the health of a space. Good IEQ comes from not only using the right building materials but also monitoring and optimizing various indoor elements. IEQ factors include air quality, levels of chemical and pollutant exposure, building dampness, and overall cleanliness. Biophilic design can target some of these factors, namely air quality and levels of chemical exposure.
Integrating plants and other greenery into the workplace is an easy and effective method of improving air quality and boosting workers’ moods. Employees perform better with plants around; productivity goes up by about 15 percent on average. This means plants also work wonders for collaboration, as they contribute to group productivity and interaction as well as solo work. Many businesses are going above and beyond to include plants in the workplace, with some opting for living walls that simultaneously create a striking visual focus and transform any space into a biophilic retreat. It’s also worthwhile to think about including other natural systems and elements in the workplace, such as water (e.g., fountains, small waterfalls) and fire (e.g., fireplaces). Such inclusions can create ideal collaborative spaces that benefit the physical and mental health of everyone who uses it.
Exposure to natural light is another vital aspect to consider, as collaboration happens best in well-lit biophilic spaces. Studies have repeatedly shown that employees who receive more daylight live, work, and sleep better. The specific amount and duration of light exposure is important here, as too much light can actually cause mood to decline. Matching both natural and artificial light with human circadian rhythms is widely accepted as the best and healthiest method of daylighting. This technique allows workers to follow their natural peaks of energy and get more out of those high points, making collaboration (and work in general) more effective. Windows and skylights are straightforward choices for daylighting, and it’s even better if a window looks out on a view of nature, as that appeals to biophilia even more. Careful attention to daylighting can dramatically improve collaboration.
From Snøhetta: Adding natural light, even in a crowded urban neighborhood like Slack’s NoHo office (NYC), is an enhancement to collaboration.
The Future of Collaboration
The amount of collaboration in the workplace is at an all-time high, and to get the most out of it, workers need spaces that are designed specifically for working together. Generating new ideas and innovating is much easier when in a biophilic, human-first environment. Current collaboration spaces can be reinvigorated by providing a variety of seating options or including more reclaimed wood. By using natural materials, controlling indoor elements, and considering collaboration in design, you can create the perfect collaboration space for your company.