Workspaces can foster the casual interactions which encourage collaboration if they provide for three factors: Proximity, Privacy and Permission.
July-August’s Harvard Business Review is devoted to collaboration and includes an article by Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks, entitled Who Moved My Cube, which explores these factors. There are sufficient examples of unintended consequences to suggest that – while it is all too easy to stymie collaboration – actually encouraging it is next to impossible. Luckily, the authors provide their Proximity / Privacy / Permission framework with examples of how it can work in both the physical and online realms.
The physical environment is important of course – and in ways which may not be intuitively obvious such as the need to create alcoves and the like to allow for privacy. However, a bigger factor is human psychology: enabling preference, signalling permission and creating reasons for casual interaction.
A fantastic finding – which we all will recognise – is the value of photocopiers in promoting interaction. Queues, paper-jams and arcane knowledge of the black (or coloured) arts of toner cartridge replacement all encourage casual interaction and potential collaboration: the zen of Xerox.
Similarly, beware the coffee machine. The head of a lab at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute, recognising the importance of the coffee break sought to improve interaction by replacing the communal coffee pot with an upmarket single-serve machine. However, by removing the dynamic of clustering around a fresh pot of coffee, his investment had the opposite effect.
There is some sort of message here about the danger inherent in a flawless, faultless life. Without the grit of a paper-jam or an empty coffee pot, we can’t expect to encourage the pearls of innovation.
The full article is in the print issue and available to subscribers. A summary is available here.