Good productivity emerges from good collaborative relationships so the working environment must be conducive to this, writes Nick Martindale.
04 December 2017 | Nick Martindale
In recent years the trend in workplace design has been a one-way move towards encouraging greater interaction in offices, away from closed spaces and cubicles and towards open-plan working and activity-based environments, supplemented by communal areas designed to bring people together and encourage staff from different departments to meet and share ideas.
"Social cohesion is what we call business friendliness, and the whole basis of it is that you recognise that everyone brings to work with them a bunch of knowledge and some energy," says Andrew Mawson, founder of Advanced Workplace Associates. "Regardless of what your day-to-day needs are, you get to know more people so you can both share your knowledge, feel comfortable to challenge people and know what they know. The workplace needs to not create barriers to that, but also to provide facilities
to encourage that."
Any attempt to encourage greater collaboration and communication needs to go beyond simply sitting teams or departments near each other, points out Sarah Hodge, managing director of Hodge Development Limited, who also served as lead judge at the BIFM Awards. "If you just sit two departments next to each other, which we always used to do, they don't collaborate," she says. "They might chat, but sometimes departments become even more territorial. It's about creating a culture and a way of working which is showing people why they need to collaborate."
Learning from Silicon Valley
A good place to start, says Monica Parker, founder of Hatch Analytics, is by collecting evidence of an organisation's behaviour and culture to identify just what type of set-up is required. "An office design can facilitate a collaborative culture but it cannot create one," she says. "Design is just an element of strategy; if your culture is such that it won't embrace that type of space or usage then it won't work. We've all seen design follies of putting slides in spaces that have no business having slides or beanbag chairs in a non-beanbag-chair culture, and it just smacks of inauthenticity. If the design is not aligned authentically to the culture of that business then it will not in itself drive greater collaboration."
It's a point Christopher Allen, head of workplace consulting at Morgan Lovell, also makes, stressing the need to understand what it is staff actually want or need.
"You have to find out what makes them tick, and put processes in place which give them flexibility, in an HR sense rather than an agile working sense," he says.
"You have to provide them with choice. That's hard, because you're actually talking about managing by output, not by presenteeism. If you start designing a great workplace because you're an architect or designer, that might look lovely but it might not fit the organisation that you're doing it for effectively."
Despite this, there are a number of ways in which office design can help to facilitate collaboration, as part of a wider workplace strategy and culture that encourages this. Marie Puybaraud, global head of research of corporate solutions at JLL, says removing partitions can have a big effect, as can putting meeting places in the middle of open spaces.
"We would never have imagined having a videoconferencing room in the middle of an office space," she says. "The first time I saw that was 10 years ago at Skype in Silicon Valley. It worked wonderfully; it was perfectly adapted to the type of population within the space and they feel very comfortable having a team meeting in an office space environment. We will see this more and more."
Creating a central focus for a workspace is important, adds Mawson. "You need to think carefully about the routes people go on," he says. "It's too easy for people to come into work, plonk themselves in a corner and not talk to anyone all day, so actually designing buildings with a heart - a cafeteria or food facility which acts as a bit of a magnet for people and brings them out - is one thing."
The use of smaller and circular or oval tables in meeting areas can also help, he says, as these tend to encourage eye contact and collaboration more than larger, square ones.
The use of furniture can also make a difference, says Mark Conway, head of office environments at Active.
"The incorporation of multipurpose and flexible furniture, for example, storage units that also act as a writable surface or moveable walls to make semi-private meeting spaces, makes the most of space, and also encourages employees to vary their work environment," he says.
There have been a number of projects in recent years that have successfully managed to transform workspaces to improve collaboration. Working with Unwork, The Boston Consulting Group built its new 10 Hudson Yards office in Manhattan around the idea of shared spaces, designed to promote community and interaction, including a large café and informal work and meeting space at the centre of the design. As well as reporting an increase in crossover in job acceptances as a result of the new space, it has also reduced floor space requirements by 32 per cent.
Morgan Lovell, meanwhile, recently helped to develop Superdrug's new headquarters in Croydon around an 'activity-based' environment, after undertaking consultation with its 500 employees. "Activity-based working is a simple concept," says Tim Polisano, senior designer at Morgan Lovell. "For Superdrug, it means offering employees a choice of work settings, each designed for different types of task, whether a small team meeting, confidential phone call or a presentation for a product launch. We have used furniture and varying colour schemes across the floors to designate certain areas for different activities including collaborative zones, contemplation spaces and 'touchdown' desks. This new working style will also help integrate teams and make the office a destination where employees can meet and discuss ideas, however and wherever they feel comfortable."
Hodge points to her involvement in designing Britvic's new headquarters in Hemel Hempstead, following a restructuring and a controversial move from its traditional base in Chelmsford. Here, there was a strong emphasis on those who were in the building being able to physically see each other, including the use of open meeting facilities.
"They had glass walls and some of their areas had no walls at all, just collaborative white boards, interactive surfaces and stick-up boards that were left open all the time and which people could go and comment on," she says. "People were encouraged to see what others were thinking."
The project won a BIFM Impact on Organisation and Workplace Award, and led to a cultural change where external design agencies could come into the office at any time and work on projects. "It really transformed the collaboration with external partners," she adds.
Britvic was even able to demonstrate the impact the new building and more collaborative culture had; something that is notoriously difficult to do.
"There was a major issue when they first moved into the building when a child in France swallowed a Fruit Shoot lid," says Hodge. "The building enabled everyone from the facilities team and the disaster recovery team coming together to deal with that, and resulted in much faster decision-making and problem-solving." More generally, the business was also facing the threat of a hostile takeover from a rival, she adds, which eventually failed to materialise in the face of seven quarters of growth following the move.
Finding the wow factor
Ana Stanojevic, associate director, workplace, JLL, gives the example of the company's work with Sky Central, which won the British Council for Offices' best of the best workplace award in October.
"As you walk into this environment there's a wow factor. There's a huge amount to discover and a great space to find people and exchange ideas and co-create.
"From a design perspective they have done some amazing things around stairs and ramps, and the intention was for people to use them rather than taking the lift and promote staff well-being. But they also encourage colleagues to take different routes around the building because you never know who you will meet on the way."
The building includes two mezzanines, two atria and six cafés, to create additional work, meeting and relaxation space, she adds.
Not all projects are so successful, however, and often this is a result of a failure to explain the logic behind any strategy or design intended to encourage collaboration. "The biggest falldown is not realising the impact of the change that they're going to go through," says Allen. "You can design a great office building but if you don't take people through how it should work and how they should work in it then it doesn't work."
Around 70 per cent of projects fail because they haven't recognised the amount of transformation and change involved, he adds.
There can also be a risk that designers go too far in trying to force new ways of working, contends Puybaraud.
"You have to be ready to take the step towards working in a fully flexible environment," she says. "If you're not ready for that then maybe a more rigid model and design would be more appropriate. At the centre of this are people; you've got to understand how people work before you can push out this type of design."
Yet the growing importance of knowledge-based and creative workers in organisations of all kinds means this is increasingly an issue businesses will have to think about when redesigning or moving premises, believes Mawson. "As artificial intelligence and digitisation take hold, organisations will have bigger proportions of their workforces in the knowledge-based camp so this is going to move to centre-stage," he says. "But if you're trying to improve social cohesion then you need to affect space, technology, behaviour and leadership style altogether. You simply don't bring about any lasting or significant behavioural change by just changing the furniture."