Is your organization planning a return to the office? Use this time to reimagine your space to better facilitate collaboration.
As association professionals plan their return to a shared workspace, they have an opportunity to refashion how they use that space—conceptually and physically. One area to lean into: creating more opportunities for collaboration.
Why? Your employees probably want space for connection. Before COVID-19 changed the world of work, 83 percent of office space was devoted to individual work and 17 percent was devoted to collaborative work. But those collaborative spaces were used 25 percent more than spaces designed for individuals. Organizations can redesign their offices to foster this collaborative mindset.
That doesn’t mean you need an open office to do it.
“It’s not as simple as assuming people just want more open collaborative spaces,” says Liz Burow, workplace design expert and former VP of workplace strategy at WeWork. In working with organizations to plan a return to the office, Burow has used a variety of methods and spaces to foster employee connection.
“I learned that we had this assumption that people would return to and find value in the workplace for open collaborative environments. And we were really mistaken,” she says.
Consider these tips from Burow to create a collaborative office.
Seat Teams Together
A simple concept, but more organizations are moving away from this setup in favor of unassigned seating, or “hot desking.” However, Burow argues that grouping teams allows for impromptu collaboration throughout the day and for employees to learn through osmosis.
“We thought collaboration was a space type, but it’s actually an interaction value. And so for a lot of people it means, ‘I just want to go back to sitting next to my colleague and be able to turn to them and ask them a question.’ That’s collaboration for them,” Burow says.
Offer Private Conversation Spaces
When it comes to facilitating collaboration, your first instinct might be to offer wide-open spaces for large groups. But organizations might also benefit from offering enclosed meeting rooms for small teams of two to four people.
“They need more small private conversation spaces in order to have good conversations,” Burow says.
With limited space, it may be difficult to create this kind of room. Burow says one simple solution is to designate private offices as meeting spaces when they’re not occupied. People with private offices can take the initiative and officially allow their space to be used by others when they’re out of the office. This could be especially useful in a hybrid work environment, where the entire staff will never be in the office at once.
Reimagine Social Spaces
Take existing common areas and use them for collaboration in a more purposeful way by focusing on events and programming. For example, that social lounge that employees barely use? Make it an exciting place to meet by offering catered meals, surprise snacks, interesting guest lectures, or coffee chats with leaders in that space.
When you get groups in one space, serendipitous collaboration and idea generation begins.
“Look at common space and say, ‘This is now our place to bring the squirrels to the nuts,’” Burow says. “If you can’t change the environment, then change how people are pulled and pushed in one way or another, and nudge them toward positive activity.”
Use Flexible Furniture
Take out heavy furniture that looks bolted to the ground and replace it with easily movable pieces such as wheeled tables, stackable or foldable chairs, and movable monitor stands.
Flexible furniture lets you turn open office space into an environment suitable for any sort of group activity. One day, you could place chairs around a table in the center of the space for a roundtable discussion. And the next day you could rearrange furniture to have chairs and tables facing one direction to accommodate a presentation or lecture.
Flexible furniture also puts employees in control of their environment and sends the message that collaboration is encouraged.
“It’s making room to make people feel like they’re trusted to take risks to come up with new ideas. Sometimes, it’s a space that can send that signal,” Burow says. “Come in with more flexible furniture to signal that we are living in a more flexible time and we want to think more agile.”
Keep Room for Individual Spaces
It may sound counterintuitive, but keeping personal spaces could prime employees for collaboration. After all, you don’t want to subject employees to collaborative overload, and giving them space for deep work will have them refreshed for the next team meeting. So, you don’t need to knock down all cubicle walls or permanently remove private offices. To further encourage deep work, you could even turn one common area into a library-like space where silence is encouraged.
Burow says leaders who want only collaborative workspaces should realize their experiences may not have been their employees’ experiences.
“If you are in a leadership position, you’re making more money and likely had a place to work separately and be productive at home during the pandemic. But a lot of your workforce didn’t,” Burow says. “Some people are excited to return to work just to work individually.”