Firstly, I was surprised at the lack of studies on the psychology of collaboration spaces. The existing research on collaboration mostly focuses on how the make-up of teams affects their motivation and performance. What is made clear from these studies is that teams are ultimately more effective (i.e. more creative, innovative and productive) if they are comprised of a mixture of personality types. I have previously blogged on Personality & Communication discussing how different personality types prefer to communicate and interact through different media. So providing a range of tools and spaces to allow heterogeneous teams to interact is fundamental to the collaborative process.
The interest on the social media sites is around the question of what actually is collaboration and how do we encourage it. The research indicates that collaboration involves two or more parties, who are dependent on each other, working together towards a common goal. But some experts consider this as simple interaction (or cooperation or teamwork) and believe that true collaboration is when the parties develop something original that they could not achieved alone. Schrage (1998) proposed that most organisations actually do not have the conditions in place to support people working together to achieve a common goal and therefore “diluted notions of teamwork” often mask genuine attempts at collaboration.
But psychologists also make a distinction between “team” and “group” work. Teams involve interdependent members working closely together towards a joint goal – they are continuously interacting, sharing, formulating and coordinating. In contrast, work groups tend to rely more on parallel individual tasks that occasionally come together through planned meetings. Perhaps we are therefore not even providing spaces for “diluted notions of teamwork” but spaces that simply support individual activity and the occasional group gathering.
The psychological research also highlights that collaboration is a social process and involves the respect and trust of the co-collaborators. Building trust by creating a community through interaction and socialising is important for nurturing collaboration. Therefore whilst collaboration is more complicated than interaction per se, interaction helps build trust and is therefore a prerequisite for true collaboration. So as workplace strategists and designers the least we can do is provide good spaces (and tools) for interaction and encourage their use through behavioural change management.
My recent blog Lawyers Like it Large, about lawyer's holding on to their private offices, sparked an on-line debate about whether open plan actually hindered individual and business performance. The view being that open plan is possibly a false economy – it saves on space and related property costs but at the expense of reducing productivity. The debate has also been fuelled by Radio 4’s programme on the Perfect Office and Gensler’s recent Workplace Survey.
You might interpret that the research on collaboration also indicates that open plan is not conducive to effective team performance. But I think this boils down to semantics – “open plan” has become a dirty word synonymous with vast arrays of bench desks densely planned on large floor plates with little support space, privacy or noise control. Such “pack, rack and stack” style spaces primarily aimed at reducing property costs are indeed misguided (unless of course the occupying business requires such as a high density intense environment, for example trading floors and contact centres).
But good open plan, let’s call it the “landscaped office” to avoid confusion, can include a range of desk layouts; offer privacy through partial screening plus semi-enclosed areas and access to enclosed spaces; and provide areas for solitude and relaxing like breakout spaces, focus rooms, landscaped (covered) gardens and atria. The key is the balance – we need spaces for individual and team work, quiet spaces and spaces with buzz, designated areas for focussed work and places that facilitate all modes of interaction (social, decision making, knowledge sharing etc). And we need to provide all of this whilst being space-efficient and cost-effective. Now this is all quite a design challenge – I have plenty of ideas but I don’t have a single final answer (that depends on the occupying business). However, I do believe that locking people away in private offices, isolating them at home or chaining them to desks 9 til 5 is not the answer and certainly won’t help stimulate collaboration.