Let's start with the basics: what exactly is collaboration (and why it is not productivity).
The three main pillars of collaboration are communication, serendipity, and contextualization.
Effective communication is essential for successful collaboration. It involves actively listening, sharing ideas and feedback, and being open and transparent. Good communication helps to build trust and understanding among team members, which is critical for working together effectively, while aligning goals, roles, and responsibilities among team members.
Serendipity is the occurrence of chance events that lead to unexpected discoveries or positive outcomes. In the context of collaboration, serendipity can lead to chance encounters or opportunities that spark new ideas, leading to creative breakthroughs and innovation. The pseudo randomness it impregnates is invaluable as it can help to break down silos and encourage cross-disciplinary thinking in an organic way.
Contextualization (or “Safety & Comfort”)
Here contextualization refers to the act of adapting processes and strategies to the specific needs and preferences of the individuals or teams involved in a project, ensuring flexibility. This involves taking into account factors such as communication styles, cultural backgrounds, and work processes to create a collaborative environment that is effective and supportive for all parties. This might include:
- Adapting tools and technologies to meet the specific needs of the team, such as using language translation tools for multilingual teams or using different communication channels for team members in different time zones.
- Adapting processes to suit the cultural or work style preferences of the team, such as using more formal or informal communication styles, or structuring meetings and decision-making processes differently.
How does collaboration connect to spatial layouts?
Are communication, serendipity and contextualization imprinting in any sort of way in space? And can I use space to track and measure these very abstract notions?
Short answer: yes.
For the past few years, we at Butlr have seen a plethora of different work settings and worked closely with our clients to surface hidden pain-points. What we have realized is that 90% of the times these pain-points can be effectively addressed with spatial changes as the starting point. These are some of our learnings:
Highly diverse in their composition, structure and characteristics, heterogenous environments create “information valleys and peaks” that prompt people to movement aka communication. This is because people are naturally drawn to areas of high information density, where there is a greater likelihood of encountering new and interesting information. In heterogeneous environments, information is dispersed unevenly, creating pockets of high and low information density. This uneven distribution of information encourages movement and exploration, as individuals seek out areas with high information density and try to connect with others who may have unique knowledge or experiences.
A common misconception is that open-plan layouts enable better communication by default. In practice and in the context of heterogeneous environments, such layouts can be counterintuitive because they can neutralize the richness of information “difference” by overexposing employees to it. This, in turn, discourages movement and exploration. In Butlr, we've seen times and times again uniform, expanded open-plan layouts (aka sea of desks) perform poorly in terms of instigated movement as people tend to remain in-place and over-rely on a single, static source of information (i.e., a computer screen).
Serendipity: Movement is King
One thing that always comes up in discussions with our customers here at Butlr is the importance of using occupancy data to identify spaces as “dynamic” and “static”. To put it simply, having a high number of people coming to the office doesn't necessarily guarantee optimal results if individuals tend to isolate themselves at their desks, never to speak to each other unless hopping on a zoom call. The key to maximizing the return on investment in your workspace is to encourage people to show up and interact with each other, although achieving the latter can be challenging.
In the context of heterogeneous environments and non-consistent spatial layouts, creating "focal nodes" is essential to prompt movement and generate serendipitous encounters. A "focal node" is an area within a space that is designed to attract attention and encourage exploration, oftentimes having a high functional purpose within its spatial context. Some examples of “focal nodes” include:
- Whiteboard walls
- Workshop rooms
- Media Walls
- Coffee bars.
Perhaps, however, the best example of “focal node” we've seen in Butlr came in the form of a small terrace. In 2022, Butlr was working on a project in Paris that involved a beautiful office with amazing spaces and high-tech equipment - everything anyone would ask for from a contemporary office space. However, it was a small terrace at the end of the office that caught the attention of our team during deployment. Initially, we assumed that people used the terrace to take breaks and socialize (which, nonetheless, also contributes to collaboration). However, spending just 30 minutes there revealed that people were actually grabbing their laptops and working on projects. Even on a Friday! The best part? The terrace was located in an area that required individuals to walk through open spaces and outside of meeting rooms with glass walls. This allowed people to witness and be inspired by the organic movement and activity, contributing to one of the most dynamic workspaces we have ever encountered to this day.
Contextualization: Flexibility and Options.
As teams grow, the number factors that contribute to a "happy workforce" increases exponentially, making it difficult to identify and address all potential issues. These factors can range from the communication styles and cultural backgrounds of team members to their work processes and personal preferences.
It is important for managers to regularly assess the team's needs and take proactive measures to address any issues that arise. Yet, as we always say, people vote with their actions. Instead of relying on surveys and anecdotal stories, turn to data that can tell you how people are actually using their spaces. Occupancy data can tell you exactly what percentage of your team prefers quiet spaces and at what rate they tend to utilize them. Here at Butlr we are no strangers to workspaces where people were hijacking meeting room schedules to secure a quiet place to work - a tendency that led to overbooked meeting rooms, congested areas, high levels of friction and - guess what - low overall occupancy rates.
Additionally, decentralized teams that are geographically dispersed and operate across multiple time zones can face challenges with coordination and communication. Distance and time differences can create barriers, making it more difficult for team members to build meaningful relationships and collaborate on projects. Additionally, cultural differences and varying work styles can further complicate communication and collaboration, potentially leading to misunderstandings and decreased productivity.
So how can Spatial Data help here? In December 2022, one of our Enterprise clients came up with a creative and original solution to address the challenge of leading a highly decentralized and fragmented team across the globe. They wanted to create a space where all team members could align on each other's geolocation and project progress, which led to the creation of a remarkable idea: their own “Jedi Council Chamber”.
For the non-Star Wars fans out there and in more simple terms, our client decided to install screens in a prominent communal space that displayed the active time zones of each team around the world and their current activities in the form of a project timeline. Soon, employees would start using the room as a space for coordination and stand-ups, while remote employees had a larger incentive to update their presence there. This small project created a sense of community and transparency, turning an otherwise simple space into a community hub. As one of the employees on site told us, “In the very beginning the room (both virtual and physical) was a place to exchange memes. Now it's where some of the best ideas have been generated”.
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