Collaborative workspaces are productive workspaces when they are managed well. That’s why organizations of all sizes are now embracing the collaborative office and optimizing it to meet their unique needs.
In this article, we explore collaborative workspaces and their benefits. We also review best practices for introducing more collaborative work into your organization.
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A collaborative workspace is one that empowers employees in all departments and locations with tools, workspace design, and strategies that improve teamwork. I.e., simply put, it’s a space that encourages more collaboration.
Ultimately, a collaborative work environment is to foster more brainstorming, innovation and connectivity among team members. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it can improve both company culture and employee experience.
Beyond this basic definition, a collaborative workspace means different things to different people. It will look different from organization to organization.
Some people may confuse collaborative workspaces with coworking spaces. A coworking space is where employees from different companies share the same space, otherwise known as space-as-a-service (SPaaS).
While collaboration can certainly happen in coworking spaces, most companies are concerned with how to maximize collaboration in their own facilities.
Specifically, most companies look to improve workspace collaboration in any combination of the following four ways.
When companies talk about fostering more collaboration in the workplace, they often mean breaking down silos between departments. This way, all employees have more and/or better opportunities to share ideas and accomplish team goals.
Since 86% of leaders and employees see a lack of collaboration as the top reason for workplace failures, breaking down silos and other physical impediments to collaboration is usually a smart move.
For example, this is why Steve Jobs famously brought Pixar’s three departments—computer scientists, animators, and executives—into one building when became CEO in the late 1990s. This led to the outpouring of collaboration and inspiration that turned the company into what it is today.
Not only do employees in different departments need to collaborate. Thanks to the sharp rise in hybrid work, employees can be in the same department, and even on the same team, while still working in physically separate locations. They need to be able to easily work together, too.
That’s why when many workplace leaders talk about collaborative offices, they mean ones that blend in-office work with remote work in a way that actually improves productivity.
The reality is that silos don’t just exist between departments; despite the many benefits of working remotely, it’s easy for remote workers to become alienated. They may feel disconnected. Or they may not have the same access to coworkers and information sharing as their in-office counterparts.
That’s why when they are working from anywhere outside the office, workers need extra tools. This ensures they are able to communicate and stay connected.
Yes—this includes a good wi-fi connection, of course.
But like we’ll cover in more detail below, remote workers also need a full suite of modern workplace management software. This is, of course, in addition to a company culture and clear policies that support them. Thankfully, these tools can have a ripple effect throughout an organization. The right tools will help everyone to collaborate better no matter where they are.
The hybrid workplace and the employee experience are intimately linked; we know that most employees enjoy the autonomy and work-life balance that comes from more flexible working. The more a company can optimize their space, the better off everyone in an organization will be.
Offering more opportunities for socialization outside the workday may also help to foster all those relationships that actually make up some much of our work lives.
Like Steve Jobs illustrated, keeping different departments squirreled away in separate offices can impede collaboration.
But even team members sharing an open space will miss out on opportunities to collaborate if they don’t have the right tools.
That’s why IT and facility management (FM) departments should work together to ensure employees have the technology required for both traditional and hybrid workplaces.
As we’ll cover further below, this will include digital workplace solutions that are easy to use and access from anywhere.
Finally, ‘collaborative workspace’ can be synonymous with ‘collaborative office design.’
There are a variety of work environment types emerging which specifically enhance collaboration, productivity, and employee satisfaction.
An open office used to be the most cutting edge office imaginable.
Thankfully, today, there is a much wider range of workplace strategies that can be fine tuned to better meet both business needs and employee preferences.
In all of these strategies, the goal is to let the office itself contribute to more collaboration. This is by getting employees moving around, interacting with many more people, and being able to find spaces where they can work better with others. They all require robust space management software to manage properly. Otherwise, they can become too chaotic and actually hinder collaboration and productivity.
These work models also require collaboration between IT and FM departments. Both are usually responsible for both rolling out this new software and strategies, as well as ensuring a smooth transition from the traditional office when they do so.
Collaboration is more than just a buzzword, like ‘new normal’ or ‘synergy.’ Fostering better collaboration in the workspace is an actionable goal. It can bring many tangible benefits, including the following:
Innovation is key to staying competitive and improving existing processes, and it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
You never know what will spark the next great idea! But it usually comes from a combination of informal chatting (maybe over that ping pong table), coupled with more formal brainstorming sessions.
Cross-functional teams can be more interactive with each other, pooling talent and resources in new and exciting ways. Collaborative spaces that encourage employees to move and interact with new people on a regular basis stir the proverbial pot. This helps to ensure fresh ideas are always bubbling and able to surface.
This can also lead to better networking opportunities, which themselves then lead to more information and idea sharing.
And remember that offices don’t need to make major overhauls to their layout and strategy to improve collaboration.
Even in offices with more traditional, static seating, companies can create a collaborative workspace online that keeps ideas flowing. But only if they improve digital and asynchronous communication, so that no one is stuck talking to their seat mate alone.
Not only can private offices and cubicles stymie collaboration, they can also lead to poor space utilization.
Before the pandemic, most offices only used 60% of their available office space—and often a lot less. Meanwhile, collaborative office strategies like ABW and office neighborhoods offer an added bonus of typically using space much better.
Especially when companies use both space utilization reports and analytics together, facility management teams can continually maximize their space and improve how employees interact with it.
Improved space utilization often lets companies cut back on office space. This can often help them save money on their real estate portfolio. This is especially powerful when you consider that corporate real estate is often a company’s second largest cost after payroll.
When companies use workspace design to cut back on real estate, they are also cutting back on the amount of energy and resources they need.
More collaborative offices therefore have the potential to be more environmentally-friendly. This is particularly beneficial for companies concerned with the triple bottom line—people, planet, and profit.
Of course, companies don’t just want to save money—they need to make it, too.
With good project management, collaborative offices can expect more productivity and a higher level of employee engagement. Like we’ve covered, innovation is about creating better processes. This, in turn, can improve operations and make a company more competitive.
In other words, a collaborative office is one that is will both save and make more money.
One of the major lessons virtually every employee and employer alike learned during the pandemic, is that being flexible at work is critical to long term sustainability.
Companies that collaborate often have more supportive team environments. And, like we mentioned, are better able to pool ideas. This makes them more ready to adapt to change when they need to.
The technology and systems that companies can deploy to support collaboration at work will typically have other benefits as well.
For example, companies can use IoT sensors to track how much employees are currently able to collaborate. And they can power the smart office in many other ways as well. This was the case when the Bank of America was able to use sensors to determine a need for shared breaks that gave employees more time to interact. This in turn led to lower stress and burnout, plus a 10% boost in productivity.
Along with sensors, the software that empowers better collaboration can also better maintain all aspects of using the office as well.
Clearly, the benefits of collaborative workspaces all bleed into each other, and ultimately all combine to create the right framework for happier employees.
The main benefits of a collaborative workspace are in its impacts on employee engagement. For example, we know from studies that employees that engage in collaboration report being 17% more satisfied with their job, while companies that promote collaboration can reduce employee turnover rates by 50%
A recent OfficeSpace survey also found that while people want to stay working from home in some capacity, they missed interacting with their colleagues. Craving more in-person collaboration is one of the main reasons the majority of workers are now asking for hybrid work.
We’re social animals, so perhaps it’s not surprising that collaboration is so intimately tied to workplace satisfaction.
Moreover, collaborative workspaces look at the office and shape it to meet the needs of the people who actually use it. This is space that is actively designed for employees to do their best work.
All combined, this means improving collaboration can also have a positive impact on absenteeism and employee retention, which is critically important in this era of the Great Resignation.
Creating a collaborative workspace isn’t just building an open plan office and throwing in some extra meeting rooms. It itself requires active and meaningful collaboration between all stakeholders—IT, HR, FM teams, leadership and executive or management teams, and, importantly, employees themselves.
HR may be helpful when it comes to creating policies around hybrid working and office use, as well as to smooth inevitable rifts that arise.
Otherwise, the business of collaborating often comes down first to IT managers, who have to provide appropriate collaboration tools, and second, to the workers who have to use them.
As previously mentioned, IT will need to work with FMs to improve space utilization.
This will include using reports and analytics to understand how people are using the office. This answers questions like where employees from different departments spend the most time, and how often employees are using meeting rooms, and who is using them.
It’s usually a good idea to also blend this information with feedback from employees, who are on the ‘front line’ of actually using the office. Do they enjoy their current set up? Do they feel inspired at work? Are there any impediments to more collaboration?
Taking this information, IT and FM staff can use stack planning and scenario planning to test out possible new configurations of the office before making any major changes. This can give them extra confidence to finally try out new and interesting ways of using the office.
IT will also be responsible for ensuring all employees have the tools they need to collaborate well, whether they’re in the office or anywhere else.
Assuming the office is using flexible seating, every employee needs access to real-time desk booking software that streamlines hot desking, hoteling, or free addressing, as appropriate.
Collaboration requires meetings, of course, including those that happen on the fly—making on-the-fly room booking software a necessity as well.
Employees can’t collaborate with people they can’t find, or when they’re in the middle of an impromptu collab session and can’t find the files they need.
That means a collaborative work environment needs good wayfinding.
And since employees may be on the move or working remotely, they’ll also need a digital workspace they can access from anywhere.
This is best integrated with communication and project management tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Slack, and preferably available on multiple formats, including via a mobile app.
IT may also want to work to shore up building automation system (BAS) security, while FMs should be able to easily handle request management and move management, even at a moment’s notice.
Ultimately, it is best to house all of these digital tools in one integrated workplace management system (IWMS) that is easy and safe to access from anywhere.
When this is the case, it will also provide IT and FM teams with the information and tools they need for better handling the basic elements of space management, along with fostering more meaningful teamwork.
The more that companies embrace new working arrangements, the more we’re learning about what best supports workers and leads to better teamwork.
For example, the benefits of office neighborhoods are numerous when they are leveraged properly.
We’re also seeing several hybrid work models emerging that also have collaboration baked-in to the cake.
When any of these models use the right hybrid work tools, they’re priming their workers for better collaboration.
Like we’ve covered, teams will then need to use reporting tools to track what works, and make adjustments as necessary.
“There’s a natural rhythm to collaboration. People need to focus alone or in pairs to generate ideas or process information; then they come together as a group to build on those ideas or develop a shared point of view; and then they break apart again to take next steps.”
-Christine Congdon et. al., Balancing “We” and “Me”: The Best Collaborative Spaces Also Support Solitude
A collaborative office is one where people can connect with everyone they need—even when they didn’t know they needed them to begin with.
That means a more collaborative office is also one that provides greater visibility to employees, so that everyone can see who is using the office, both how and when.
It’s when this visibility is coupled with good software and a motivated workforce that magic can happen.
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Photos: Jud Mackrill, Clayton Cardinalli, airfocus, Christina @ wocintechchat.com