How to (re)design your office to boost collaboration

Back in the day, you needed to go to the office to access documents, powwow with colleagues, appease your face-time-hungry boss, and impress clients with your snazzy architectural choices. These days, many of these traditional purposes of the standard cubicle-and-corner-office set up are fading.

So what functions remain for the office? Mainly face-to-face collaboration. This transformation demands a corresponding change in office design to make workspaces maximally encouraging of collaboration and creativity.

Kill off some cubes

“It used to be that if you weren’t in your seat, you weren’t working. Now the entire office space is your workspace,” Mary Lee Duff, principal at IA Interior Architects, designers of Twitter’s new headquarters, recently explained to The Wall Street Journal.

For this reason, Twitter’s new offices feature plenty of “restaurant-style booths, seats that look like building blocks, lounge-style areas and a rooftop garden with tables and outdoor seating,” reports the WSJ. Duff isn’t the only design pro to note that mobile technology has untethered us from our desks and conclude that the usual mix of private workspaces and gathering areas needs to tilt more towards the latter.

Microsoft has gotten in on the trend with a rethinking of its “Garage” site in Redmond, Washington, “that encourages innovation among small groups of employees. Throughout the building are “pods”… In these temporary work spaces, teams of two to five employees can collaborate on projects for weeks at a time,” reports a MIT Technology Review slide show of offices that have been redesigned to encourage collaboration and creativity.

Fancy furniture not required

There are tons of office furniture solutions on offer to create these communal spaces such as the “pods” used by Microsoft. (Or how about these inflatable offices?) But for businesses without the resources of Microsoft, simply think in terms of “zones,” advises Kevin Kuske, general manager of furniture company Turnstone.

“Like a good city or a good restaurant, have zones,” he recently suggested on “If I want to talk, I stand at the kitchen counter because that’s where everyone comes and talks. If I need some privacy, I find two couches pulled together. It makes for better collaboration because people have a choice.” The zone approach reduces the need for single desks, saving money, and doesn’t demand anything fancier than a few Ikea sofas or stools.

In another post, Janet Pogue of Gensler architecture and design consultants suggests making a more communal workspace can be as simple as adding more glass. “That can be as simple as clear lines of sight, adding glass so that people can see one another. If you can see if somebody is available or not, that starts to foster teamwork,” she said.

It’s OK to be a buzzkill

A zoned office heavy on places to gather is great for communication, creativity and camaraderie, but don’t forget that some folks are, by their nature or the nature of their particular job, in need of quiet, private spaces in which to concentrate.

“To paraphrase Garbo, and directly quote Picasso, who observed, ‘Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.’ In other words, sometimes you want to be alone, and your workplace should allow for that,” writes Allison Arieff in a passionate defense of our more introverted tendencies for The Atlantic Cities.

Empowering employees to manage noise levels doesn’t just benefit retiring types. Experts stress the importance of creating enough “buzz” to kill self-consciousness, while also offering team members ways to escape it. In a new report on the future of work, PSFK, a blog and consultancy, envisions, “modular work pods, attractive sound-absorbing booths, mobile workstations that roll around, and “pink noise” systems that block out nearby conversations,” according to Fast Company‘s Co.Exist.

What’s ‘pink noise’? The New York Times explains that it’s “a soft whooshing emitted over loudspeakers that sounds like a ventilation system but is specially formulated to match the frequencies of human voices.” Restaurant-style booths, the article points out, are a lower-tech solution to the same issue.

Don’t neglect the basics

New ways of working may be transforming office design but some constants remain. Fluorescent light was, is and will always remain a soul suck, while natural light is good for the spirit. “In Europe, most buildings are designed with floor plates that are not that deep. Even people on interior get light,” reports Michael Kleinberg, president of design firm MKDA. Follow the European’s healthy example and make sure everyone gets to see some sun.

Adding plants and other natural materials is also good for morale and productivity. “Morgan Lovell, a U.K.-based design firm, is developing relaxed, informal interior spaces that invite employees to stop, talk, and collaborate,” reports the MIT post, which highlights the company’s work for Rackspace, where the office “was designed to mimic a garden, complete with decking, swings, and fake grass.”

We recently created a Pinterest page to salute creative collaborative workspaces as we come across them. We’d love to hear about yours!

Post by Jessica Stillman

Jessica Stillman is a semi-nomadic freelance writer (current location: sunny Nicosia, Cyprus) with interests in entrepreneurship, remote collaboration, unconventional career paths and generational differences.