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Many companies are paying attention to creating workspaces that foster collaboration. But those efforts often flop, Anne-Laurie Fayard, a professor of management at the Polytechnic Institute of New York, and John Weeks, a professor of leadership at IMD in Lausanne, note. When Scandinavia Airlines, for example, re-designed its headquarters in 1987 around a central "street" with a café and several mingling rooms, two-thirds of interactions were still confined to private offices.

In Harvard Business Review, the professors highlight the importance of proximity, privacy, and permission in designing for collaboration:


Usually the tendency is to focus on distance - how far employees are from one another or from a breakout room. And distance is important. But proximity also depends upon traffic patterns that are shaped just as much by social and psychological factors - two people or two departments could be very close in distance, but the individuals rarely pass each other because the traffic patterns lead them in different directions. Ideally, to encourage sharing of ideas, spaces need shared resources such as photocopiers, coffee machines and water coolers to turn the physical proximity into a social proximity.


Collaboration is fine. But not everyone wants to be seen collaborating. And they usually don't relish being overheard. At one media agency, the two professors built a central shared space that everyone had to pass through, but nobody lingered there because the heavy traffic rendered private conversations impossible. As well, the agency's director frequently came in for coffee, adding to fears of being overheard.

So make sure people can be confident of conversing without being overheard. Alcoves can be helpful, allowing a retreat from the public space to a more private area without needing to open doors and, in the process, potentially disrupting the conversation. You may also want to consider rules so that people don't fear being sucked into meetings every time they go through your carefully designed meeting square. In one lab, traffic through the common area was acceptable at any time, anyone was free to join any conversation, and anyone was free to leave any conversation at any time. With those three rules, informal interaction soared.


A space will only be used for public collaboration if the corporate culture and top management approve. In one company, the luxurious coffee lounge was usually empty, with people coming in only to grab a coffee and scoot because the company culture disapproved of staying and talking. At another workplace, by contrast, designers, advertising people and architects in the creative collaborative could usually be found sitting on sofas chatting or in the café sharing because that was seen as an important element of the creative process.


In designing a collaborative space, you need all three Ps: proximity, privacy, and permission. "Having only one or two usually isn't enough, and over- or under-emphasizing any of the three can backfire," the professors warn. They suggest building flexibility into your designs, so you can test different permutations and measure the effect of the design. Seemingly small changes, they stress, can have a big impact.

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