Collaboration: can we design for it?

Collaboration is one of those frequently used words. People talk about 'collaboration space', wanting to have a 'collaborative culture', and encouraging 'collaboration'. But when it comes to defining and measuring 'collaboration', there's somewhat of a pause. What is the business outcome of collaboration? Is it a new product or service, enhanced productivity, greater process efficiency, happier employees, more satisfied staff, or something else altogether. I haven't yet found an organization that is crystal clear on what it wants to achieve at an organization, work-team, or individual employee level from 'collaboration'.

Neither do we have much clarity on what contributes to collaboration. Is it the design of the workplace, the technology used, the cultural attributes of an organization, the type of work that is being done, or all of these or some/none of these?

So when this week, at my place of employment, we kicked off the first of a series of four action learning sessions the opening topic was 'collaboration'. 'Action learning is a dynamic process that involves a small group of people looking at real problems and opportunities, while at the same time focusing on what they are learning and how their learning can benefit each group member, the group itself and the organization as a whole'. We have set up the group (of about 15 people) with the primary objective of developing some tools and approaches that support our clients in making actionable connections between organization design and workplace design to increase organizational performance. A secondary objective is to try out these tools and approaches on ourselves as we transition to new office space.

The way we have structured the action learning set is that each session has a short piece of pre-work – something to read, listen to, or watch – on the topic, and two of the set members kick off the discussion, and then facilitate it. The collaboration pre work was a 20 minute RSA video/podcast presented by Ben Hammersley, a technologist on Tomorrow's Work. Why Yesterday's Expectations Are Ruining Today's Future,

The action learning thing yielded some immediate lessons a) not everyone had done the pre-work b) we leapt into solution mode rather than being reflective, provocative, and innovative c) we hadn't made it clear to participants what the objectives of the sessions were so there were mixed expectations. Even so, I think the discussion yielded some great results.

The participants were predominantly architects and designers. They are often asked by clients to cut the costs of real estate and one way of doing this is through radically reducing the number of offices and cubicles and replacing these with hot-desking, benching, hoteling, or similar.

The action learning session participants themselves work in an open plan environment though they tend to have assigned seating. And the discussion immediately started to center on their experience and feelings of working in this environment. Ben Hammersley fairly early on in the talk made a potentially contentious point that 'open plan offices freak you out'. He said (without quoting sources so I'm not sure what the evidence is) that people working in open plan offices are a lot more stressed than those with own offices, and their sickness and absence rates are higher.

Although no participant specifically admitted to being stressed and freaked out there was an involved discussion on where focused work got done. For the most part it seemed to be off-site in the evenings or at weekends. Some people came into the office on Sunday when that day only the unspoken rule is 'no interruptions or disturbances'. It seems that on normal work days if you are in the office then you are assumed to be available to whatever or whoever is around. It turns out it is not a place to 'work', unless you are in a team where there is a specific task to be done that requires interaction. Additionally there appears to be an unspoken rule in this particular office that working off-site during normal office hours is not the done thing (unless someone is on a client site) although it is not expressly 'forbidden'.

One of the participants, having watched the podcast, started to manually track the interactions between team members to see if she could work out what the interactions were related to. Her insight was that although people sat in notional 'teams' the interactions seemed to play more to work flow and process (that cut across teams). There's a useful HBR article, The New Science of Building Great Teams, on the use and technology of sociometric badging for doing this type of mapping and there are other social networking analysis tools that do similarly. Some examples here and here.

Another raised the intriguing point that clients ask for 'quiet' or 'focus' space to be designed in, but when he thought about people working in coffee shops, in airports, on buses, and so on he wondered whether quiet spaces were what enabled 'work'. He asked whether it was more about 'rules' and expectations. No one in a coffee shop is expecting another customer to wander up, interrupt, and start chatting. Although the environment may be noisy, the expectation is of uninterrupted focused work.

Someone else noted that in the workplace the expected speed of response to emails, questions, instant messages, etc puts an unreasonable demand on the urgent rather than the important. He reminded us of the 'tyranny of the urgent'. This was a concept that Stephen Covey brought into the mainstream and gave it the name "The Urgent/Important Matrix" in his 1994 business classic, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People". You can see the matrix explained here. Echoing this urgent/important idea, Hammersley made a lovely point that the current tendency in offices is to 'stay on top of things rather than getting to the bottom of things'.

People who'd watched the pre-work remembered this point and started developing thoughts around how information is shared and how decisions get made. Someone wondered whether having people around all willing and able to voice opinions on stuff was useful or not. This led towards suggesting that there has to be a person ready to facilitate, guide and help everyone get to a resolution on a problem, topic, or opportunity. The ready availability of people to input (is this collaboration?!) led to an unstructured day for many people. So the question arose – how can you collectively and/or culturally design in structure, focus, and important work in an open workplace environment? And is collaboration more about supporting each other in doing this and less about being available to offer opinions, being constantly available, and responding instantly to the urgent because open space makes this easy?

The question remains for us to experiment with as we discuss our own office move. Your views are welcome.