Is Being in the Same Physical Space Critical to Improving Collaboration?

Part One of this blog talked about the need for a balanced office design to provide workspace for focus time and collaboration time. Collaboration remains an imperative for organizational evolution and the need to create environments, where people can share experiences and ideas, is critical to spawn innovation.

Principles that Increase Collaboration

I referenced a Steelcase white paper, “How the workplace can improve collaboration”, June 2010, which talks about a shift in the nature of work from more individual focused to more collaboration focused.

“Among the key findings was validation that a fundamental shift has occurred: most work today is done in collaboration with others versus individually. Moreover, rather than it being a segmented activity done in designated destinations such as a conference room, collaboration is now almost constant and it threads throughout the entire workday. It occurs at desks, in hallways, in team spaces, on smart phones and via the Internet, and it’s often spontaneous and informal versus planned in advance. When the workspace is designed to fully support the new realities of collaboration, better learning, more innovation and faster decision-making can result.”

I also referred to a Malcolm Gladwell article which stated, “The catch is that getting people in an office to bump into people from another department is not so easy as it looks.”

Is It Easier to Make an Outside Call than to Walk Across the Room?

Gladwell then insightfully bridges to the research of Thomas Allen, MIT on how engineers communicated in R&D labs. Two significant conclusions:

  1. “Allen found that the likelihood that any two people will communicate drops off dramatically as the distance between their desks increases: we are four times as likely to communicate with someone who sits six feet away from us as we are with someone who sits sixty feet away. And people seated more than seventy-five feet apart hardly talk at all.”
  2. “Allen’s second finding was even more disturbing. When the engineers weren’t talking to those in their immediate vicinity, many of them spent their time talking to people outside their company—to their old computer-science professor or the guy they used to work with at Apple. He concluded that it was actually easier to make the outside call than to walk across the room.”

Four Different Modes of Working, Collaborative Ecosystems

This suggests that being in the same physical space only holds so much merit as a means of increasing the velocity of collaboration within an organization. Space can be redesigned to increase the likelihood that people will connect. But, as detailed in part 1 of this blog, not at the expense of the other work modes that people need to be effective.

What About all the Remote Workers?

It has become more and more common for people to work a significant part of their time on the road or from home.

My wife is a perfect example. She works for a large Pharma company as a Field Representative. She is in the field all day and works from home to connect with colleagues and get administration work completed. She works both on the road and from home. In fact, there is no office for her to go into on a daily basis. Regular meetings with management happen on the road at the local Starbucks or their favourite restaurants

Does that mean she can’t really collaborate well and be part of innovative new ideas in a company? Hardly. Her company regularly solicits input from the field and has field representatives participate as collaborators in key cultural and strategic initiatives.

Yahoo! Called Their Remote Workers Back Into the Office

Earlier this year, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, recalled all of her remote workers and told them they needed to be in the office – is this the end for remote working?

There will always be unique situations which seem to go against the grain of using a workforce that is distributed beyond the office building. But the barn door is open and the benefits of a dispersed workforce are clear. 

94% of Home Workers Produce Better Quality Work & Put in 24 Days a Year More Work

Surveys are telling us that remote workers “put in 24 days a year more than they would if they were coming into the office every day.” It found 94% of workers say they produce better quality work from home than the office.

So workers are getting better quality focus time – to produce more and better work, but they can still collaborate well from a distance, especially when they have a mix of collaboration technologies which provide a rich experience.

This sounds like a WIN-WIN scenario!

The term ‘collaboration‘ is bandied about in many different ways. And it can be confusing. I have started to compile some principles around collaboration and am up to seven so far and wanted to share them.

7 Collaborative Principles

  1. Collaboration is not just people talking together.
  2. Collaboration happens in both real time and iterative ways (future blog topic).
  3. Collaboration happens in small spaces and open spaces. A proper balance of ‘I’ space and ‘We’ space is required which also takes into consideration for the type of workers in the business (user classes).
  4. True collaboration has 4 phases.  Only one of the phases involves a group of people coming together.
  5. The way you collaborate will depend on the type of work you do – lawyer vs sales person vs Insurance claim processor
  6. Collaboration can be just as effective whether people are in the same room or are connected by technology.
  7. The kinds of technology used will affect how rich the collaborative experience will be.

Change is constant. We are moving into a new economy based on connection and how you collaborate in the Connection Economy is very important for your organization to thrive.

Seth Godin, in his book, “The Icarus Deception”, describes it this way …

“The question, as we move from an industrial economy that cherishes compliance [a Solid Network], to a connected economy that prizes achievement [a Liquid Network], is this: Are we supporting this shift with a culture that encourages us to dream important dreams? What do we challenge our achievers to do? When do we encourage or demand that they move from standardized tests and Dummies guides to work that actually matters?”

If you would like more information on the 7 Collaborative Principles and how they apply to your business, contact us.