Until recently, “collaboration” usually meant scheduled meetings with multiple participants, typically held inside conference rooms and other formal meeting spaces. Now, thanks to a new generation of disruptive computing and communication technologies and evolving user preferences, collaboration has become much more informal, allowing meetings to be held at times and in ways that meet the needs of all participants.
“New technologies and design approaches are reshaping the way businesses are viewing collaboration,” observes Ben Dickie, a senior manager at Info-Tech Research Group, a technology research firm.
With collaboration now moving beyond the traditional conference room, many organizations are rethinking their workspace strategies. More enterprises are building innovative workspaces that are designed to take advantage of new technologies and fresh approaches to collaboration.
“Fortune 1000 companies around the globe are entirely revamping their space around the fact that employees are already mobile,” says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, a consulting and research firm.
Instead of wasting real estate on desks that frequently sit unused, many organizations are now refashioning their workspaces to support the work that's actually being done.
“The best results come from a mix of spaces that provide areas for concentration, collaboration, learning and socializing,” Lister says.
A new generation of technology-savvy users sees little sense in interrupting workflows to participate in meetings that often don't fit their schedules or are held in places that are difficult or time consuming to reach. But these users also understand the correlation between personal interactions, performance and innovation.
Many organizations are now helping users collaborate more efficiently and productively by providing workplace environments featuring layouts, technologies and services designed to improve collaboration and overall performance.
“Inflexible and insufficient technologies, rooms and furnishings prevent workers from achieving management's demand for higher performance,” says Joel Ratekin, a senior vice president at Gresham, Smith and Partners, an architecture, engineering and interior planning firm.
Many technology industry leaders are now rapidly building or adapting workplaces to reflect the connection of performance, innovation and personal interactions. Google's new campus, for instance, was designed to maximize the likelihood of chance encounters between workers.
Interactions created by chance encounters are a powerful, yet often unrecognized, asset for many organizations.
“Increasing the number of employee chance collisions can actually be more important than attributes such as individual productivity or creativity,” Ratekin says.
For such encounters to occur, workplaces need a technology infrastructure that supports mobile workers. For example, a robust wireless network is essential to providing users with access to enterprise resources as they move around the workplace. A bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy can also encourage workers to get moving.
Several companies, including Facebook, are adopting “hot-desking,” a concept in which users have no assigned offices and spaces can be quickly and easily reconfigured for different tasks and teams. “More companies are breaking away from the isolating desk-inside-a-cubicle approach,” says Anil Desai, an independent IT consultant.
This requires flexible collaboration tools that provide users with the capabilities they need regardless of where they are. These tools include voice, video, text and content-sharing.
Regardless of its size or scope, any redesign effort should focus on the fact that various kinds of meetings occur daily. Some meetings are held to share information, while others are targeted at decision-making or gathering feedback on a new idea. Each of these tasks can be supported and advanced by innovative workspace designs and technologies.
A relatively recent arrival into some workspaces is the “huddle room,” an area that typically accommodates no more than four or five occupants. In place of the usual table and chairs, a huddle room usually features armchairs and other types of casual furniture, as well as Wi-Fi access and audio, video and display technologies. “The approach encourages employees to informally share ideas without the need for much advance planning,” Ratekin says.
Other organizations are experimenting with “brainstorming spaces” designed to spark creative thinking. These spaces are typically equipped with collaborative technologies, such movable seats and tables, virtual whiteboards, easels, video conferencing systems, widescreen displays and adjustable lighting. “Anything that will get the imagination juices flowing,” Desai says.
Design experts generally agree that a user’s workspace should be homey, environmentally friendly and capable of supporting technologies that make reaching out to others fast and intuitive -- regardless of whether they are located across the hall or on the other side of the world.
“It is no longer enough simply to provide employees with cubicles and desks,” Desai says. “The goal is to redefine boundaries between departments and improve everybody's performance.”
"The older you are, the more comfortable you are likely to be with a traditional set of tools,” says Michael Helmbrecht, chief product officer for LifeSize Communications, a video conferencing solutions provider. “But if you're under 30, you really don't have any professional experience in a world without smartphones, tablets and Software as a Service applications.”
Younger workers, already comfortable with a wide range of technologies, are driving the transition toward relaxed, flexible and technology-driven workspaces. “Regardless of the workplace configuration, millennials place a high priority on comfortable, efficient work environments,” Dickie says.
With the competition for highly skilled workers heating up, having the right office environment can also help an organization present itself as a positive, progressive place to work, enabling it to attract the best talent. ”Young workers want workspaces and places that are innovative and collaborative,” Desai notes.
To promote effective and productive collaboration among all types of coworkers, more companies are giving users a wider choice of places to work. Spaces once considered purely for social functions, such as cafés and lounges, are now recognized as legitimate places to work. “Brainstorming knows no boundaries and can happen in any place where two or more people meet,” Dickie says.
When collaborative workspaces and technologies become easily and widely available, users are ready to work productively with coworkers, company leaders, customers and clients on schedules that meet the needs of all parties. This capability leads to faster and more informed decisions.
“There are three main benefits to enterprise collaboration: improved productivity, increased knowledge-sharing and hard cost reductions,” Dickie says.
Meanwhile, collaboration-enabling technologies and approaches such as BYOD and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), as well as sophisticated communication platforms, enable users to work as productively outside of the office — at home or on business trips — as they do while onsite. Collaboration technologies also help users effectively work with mixed teams that include clients, contractors, consultants and temporary workers.
An important step toward creating a highly collaborative workplace is to provide easy access to, and support for, collaboration tools.
“Collaboration technology should be adaptable, reliable and easy to use,” Dickie says. On the other hand, he warns, technology should not diminish users’ ability to meet in person to informally share information. “Sometimes, there's just no substitute for face-to-face get-togethers,” he notes.
While most organizations understand the benefits that collaboration can deliver, many find it difficult to enable. Some organizations struggle to balance the changes to their physical workspace, technology architecture and workplace policies that are required to make this transformation. Others worry that a work environment that breaks down physical barriers, promotes the use of shared workspaces and encourages users to leverage new tools could hamper security efforts.
“The need to provide safe and secure access to corporate data to employees who are increasingly more mobile is very important,” says Mark Miller, workplace transformation evangelist in Cisco Systems' Global Collaboration Strategy Group.
He notes that many organizations are already modifying their security plans and procedures to accommodate collaboration and mobility solutions that are being introduced into the workplaces. “Security technologies and policies need to evolve and adapt more quickly to the demands of next-generation work environments,” Miller says.
Integrating new collaboration technologies into an existing IT infrastructure is another important challenge facing adopters.
“When vendors work together on open standards, it certainly helps,” says Luis Benitez, a senior product manager for the IBM Connections business social network platform. Yet collaboration standards remain scarce, so organizations must work closely with vendors and other partners to ensure that new products and services will mesh well with resources that are already in place.
“What we're moving toward is more loosely coupled services that work well together, but we're not quite there yet,” Benitez says.
For many organizations, cost concerns represent a major obstacle to the creation of collaboration-friendly workspaces, particularly when budget-strapped firms are trying to shrink their real estate footprints. Yet Ratekin notes that organizations can shrink workspaces while also introducing new types of collaboration environments.
“It's sometimes more of a cultural issue than a financial concern,” he says, noting that veteran managers and staff members often view open workspaces with skepticism and even outright derision. “As a result, many business leaders worry that a changeover might lead to business disruption or lower workplace morale.”
Still Ratekin, like other collaborative workspace advocates, believes the long-term benefits of this approach more than outweigh short-term construction, deployment, employee adjustment, training and security costs.
Ratekin notes that effective collaboration with users both inside and outside an organization is essential for survival.
“Collaboration is needed for success in a wide range of business activities,” he says. “Without collaboration, most businesses would soon find themselves struggling to meet basic day-to-day requirements for themselves and their customers.”