How to Engineer Collaboration in the Workplace? (Hint: Open-Plan Offices Aren’t Enough)

Hint: Open-Plan Offices Aren't Enough

We all know the importance of collaboration, but it isn’t always easy to achieve. Whether it’s a lack of confidence in striking up conversations with strangers or a lack of space to brainstorm as a team, there are numerous potential barriers to unlocking the benefits of collaboration. By incorporating collaborative workspace ideas into their design, forward-thinking venues like The Riveter have been able to remove many of these tangible, as well as intangible, barriers. 

From the layout of the kitchen to the size of the furniture, each location of The Riveter incorporates time-tested collaborative workspace ideas as well as unique ideas that celebrate the diversity of its membership. Here our design experts answer frequently asked questions on how to optimize a workspace for collaboration.

How can I encourage repeated, random encounters in the workspace?

The influence physical spaces exert on our social outcomes isn’t just a theory — research has proven it. In one study, researchers asked the residents of a university dorm to name their closest friends. The researchers stipulated that this list could include anyone in the world. Despite this lack of restriction, two-thirds of the average respondent’s closest friends were fellow residents of the building.

This social phenomenon, known as propinquity, plays out in the workplace as well. It’s what inspired Steve Jobs to redesign Pixar’s headquarters to house everyone in the same building regardless of their department. Jobs knew random encounters across departments would occur, and lead to the cross-pollination of ideas Pixar needed to stay at the forefront of creativity.

Propinquity is also what led the designers of The Riveter to create floor plans that compel people to interact with (and within) different sections of the space. Members must circulate the space to use the printer, grab a coffee, stop by the restroom, or get a breath of fresh air on an outdoor deck. Interior design expert Jess Hutchinson confirms this, explaining that “In thinking about The Riveter, it’s impossible to not feel the power of connection and collaboration. When designing the spaces, my goal is always to encourage connection in an organic way.” 

How can I empower people to make a shared workspace their own?

One of the main places people organically connect in a shared working space is the lounge area. Comfort and style are important for these areas, but not the only things that matter. For collaboration, mobile seating is an often overlooked design choice that is equally, if not more, important. Placing lightweight chairs in lounge areas, for example, enables people to reconfigure seating as needed to adjust to their changing uses.

You can see this design principle in action at The Riveter, as members feel free to move chairs as they wish in many of the lounge areas. Maybe two people want to sit face-to-face to practice a pitch. Maybe four people want to circle up to brainstorm ideas for an upcoming event. Collaborative workspace ideas like lightweight furniture, as well as a culture of permission, empower people to create the layout that best suits their collaboration needs. 

How can I minimize distractions in a shared workspace?

The open-office floor plan was introduced with the intention of being synonymous with collaboration, but an increasing number of people are starting to question this popular layout. Tami Wood, General Manager of The Riveter Portland, confirms that while they have an open floor plan in most of the space, “we realize that some people want the community but need to be focused with minimal distractions, so we’ve created smaller areas where folks can tuck themselves away and be a little more heads-down.”

Wood is on to something. Researchers writing in the Harvard Business Review affirmed that there is “a natural rhythm to collaboration.” Before being able to collaborate effectively, people need time alone to process information and generate thoughts. After spending time together building on ideas, group members then need more alone time to take individual next steps. The best workspaces account for both parts of this natural rhythm by providing several common areas, as well as ample distraction-free rooms for private contemplation and work. 

In planning The Riveter’s spaces, Jess Hutchinson respected this natural rhythm by interspersing the space’s welcoming, buzzy common areas with a variety of private areas. These private areas include soundproof phone booths, quiet lounges, and private offices for teams of every size. This flexible layout gives introverts the personal space they need to recharge throughout the day and also gives extroverts spaces to connect with others.

How can I ensure the workspace is welcoming of people with disabilities? 

Collaboration unlocks innovation by bringing together diverse perspectives. In order to more fully achieve this goal when designing a collaborative workspace, it’s important to ensure that the design is inclusive of people with differing physical abilities. 

Conducting an empathy mapping exercise can help ensure your workspace is optimized for collaboration across abilities. This exercise begins by inhabiting the persona of someone with a visible or invisible disability. You then explore the workspace with that disability in mind, seeking out areas that could be redesigned for enhanced accessibility. Beyond ADA Standards, which establish basic design requirements for the construction and alteration of commercial facilities, this might include signage with larger print, height-adjustable desks, or lever handles instead of round doorknobs. When everyone feels safe and comfortable in their space, the stage is set for enhanced participation and collaboration.

How can I get strangers to interact in the workspace? 

Rumor has it that no part of a Google office can be more than 150 feet away from food (which would explain the abundance of mini-kitchens and onsite cafeterias). Whether this rumor is true or not, it is based on the idea that easy access to food encourages employees to leave their desks, bump into coworkers from other parts of the office, and spark up impromptu conversations that might lead to the massive company’s next big idea. Smaller workspaces can also capitalize on this collaboration-inducing idea by providing kitchen areas stocked with snacks and drinks, to encourage people to take breaks throughout the day in spaces where others might be taking a break at the same time. Communal refrigerators also encourage people to bring their own lunch and eat in the workspace, where their coworkers can join them.

Workspaces with welcoming lounge areas also make it socially acceptable for people to strike up conversations with strangers. Jess Hutchinson confirms that at The Riveter “there are no lounge spaces designed for one, this is intentional.” Even down to the coffee table books — carefully selected to act as conversation starters — each lounge area at The Riveter is designed to spark connection.

Putting it all together

So the secret is out. Those “serendipitous” moments of collaboration you’ve had in well-designed workspaces might not have been so serendipitous after all. The spacing of the amenities subtly compelled you to bump into people you might not otherwise meet. The lightweight chairs made it easier for you to brainstorm ideas with coworkers. The private spaces enhanced your collaborations by giving you room to process and take action steps without distraction. The accessible design opened the door for more diverse perspectives to contribute to your collaborations. The welcoming common areas encouraged you to strike up conversations with strangers who might become collaborators and friends. 

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” When designing a workspace for collaboration, be sure to incorporate these collaborative workspace ideas to set yourself up for success.

Kelli Newman Mason is VP of People Operations at New Knowledge, a fast-growing startup based in Austin, Texas.