Why Space Matters (For Collaboration, Innovation and Knowledge Transfer)

benefits-of-collaborative-office-space-design‘Companies aren't leaving serendipity to chance’ the Wall Street Journal said when it looked at how US firms arrange their offices to maximise the potential for chance meetings among employees.

The Science of Serendipity in the Workplace is worth a read as it includes a comment on the steps taken by Google to ensure that every worker within its new 1.1 million-square-foot, multilevel HQ complex is within a two and a half minute walk of each other.

It’s not a new idea. I’ve been banging on about the concept of Orchestrated Serendipity for many decades, most recently in conversation with Professor Clive Holtham at Cass Business School in the atrium/café area he’d been instrumental in planning when the school relocated.

They put a lot of thought into creating an environment – Building for business knowledge – that encouraged collaborative learning, with quiet areas (inspired by monastic cloisters), off the main thoroughfares for reflection.

What to think about when planning physical collaboration spaces:

Importance of light, food and the demise of the managers' dining room

As a young banker in the 80’s, I recall being vociferous about the need for natural light and greenery in the new offices we were relocating to.

And when, in the mid 90’s, my bank moved to the most prestigious of addresses – One Knightsbridge, London – as the manager in charge of (what we did but did not call) innovation and knowledge management, I got involved in planning the staff dining area and closing the traditional managers dining room.

Having recognized the importance of food as a lubricant for conversation and knowledge exchange, it took some cajoling to encourage executive directors to spend time circulating, as opposed to sitting in their select group.

Two decades later and I am in the staff restaurant of the ‘world bank’ of the Caribbean, which has a managers' dining table that instantly provides a barrier and reinforces an ‘us and them’ mentality.

Serve great coffee and make space memorable

As knowledge advisor to a reinsurance broker, I was part of the group that oversaw their relocation to the city of London.

Plans were reviewed (and rejected) as we debated how much ‘serendipitous space’ should be allocated.

Some key decisions we took:

  • To brand the area (‘Connexions’)
  • To site it in close proximity to a business lounge
  • To provide internet access and terminals for visitors
  • To provide the best coffee (and subsidised snacks) in the building
  • To provide enough informal space for learn@lunch and breakfast briefings



A fuller description can be found here.

Use unexpected spaces for exhibits

When Swiss Development Corporation was planning an event in Berne, they wanted to create an environment that encouraged knowledge exchange and the telling of stories from the field.

There was a wide variety of opportunities to share experience: market stalls, workshops, exhibitions, short presentations, rooms for informal talks (palaver tree, story tent), a video corner, a crazy corner, etc.

The Fair took place in the central hall, in the ‘community zones' and in the meeting rooms in SDC Headquarters.

The Fair and the daily activities of SDC went side by side in the same building. My colleagues at Sparknow recommended they erect a Bedouin story tent.



Analyse flows (of people and knowledge) and be opportunistic

Both are important. While working in Jeddah in 2006, I observed some interesting cultural nuances: greetings were warm and heartfelt – especially post prayers – so the lift became an important meeting area. Every floor had a coffee ‘boy’ who produced exquisite coffee or tea.

Since many institutions in Saudi Arabia observe the ritual of prayers at least twice during the working day, the passage of worshippers to and from the onsite mosque is where many interactions take place.

A way of Orchestrating Serendipity – site informal coffee areas and breakout rooms on each floor next to the lifts or on the way from the mosque.

Create a knowledge (and information) hub

One of the best examples of a multipurpose hub I worked with is that of Asian Development Bank Manila – who have managed to locate – within their central atrium – a library, a Starbucks coffee shop, and an informal seating area that doubles up as an exhibit/presentation venue.

Over the course of nine months during 2008-9, I was involved in an open presentation, one to one vox pop (small questions that say a lot) interviews, awareness raising exhibits and a community of practice meeting.



Perhaps my favourite example, though, is their larger than life earth station, where project officers were able to see visualizations of the sites they were providing development finance for.



The final word

Despite what surveys say, and the metrics used to justify investment, to a large extent this is still a leap of faith.

It is interesting, though, that Marissa Mayar, Yahoo’s (fairly) recently appointed CEO, justified her controversial ban on working from home by saying at a conference:

‘People are more productive when they’re alone… but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.’

And finally, back to the Wall Street Journal article. This stood out as a critique on the way most companies think about using space:

“They compress people in the same space, put in a coffee machine and just hope that something good happens.”

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