The desire to improve knowledge and collaboration systems during the past 15 years has tended to focus on information technology and virtual environments. And in the process, we sometimes forget about the other form of collaboration – the spaces we inhabit, working together in the physical world. 

I often wonder how many people are given responsibility for improving knowledge sharing and collaboration but have no authority to change the office layout. Sooo, final post before Crimbo – technology and brains are off the agenda.

On the whole, I am a fan of open plan office layouts. They are great for flattening organisation hierarchies and exposing informal social networks to a wider audience, making it easier to find people and collaborate.

But increasingly I see open plan layouts that inhibit collaboration rather than encourage it. Desks tend to be organized in one of two ways:

  • increased desk size to spread people out and combat noise issues
  • reduced desk size to squeeze more people in and combat space limitations

Neither of these reasons have anything to do with encouraging people to work better together.

Look familiar? This is a common desk arrangement in open plan office layouts. What is this layout designed for – working in a team or working alone with a computer?

How easy is it to grab a meeting room at short notice? What areas are set aside for group chats and informal discussions? Are such activities encouraged or frowned upon? The answer says a lot about how an organization views knowledge. Comments such as “enough idle chit-chat already occurs at the coffee machine” come from organizations who think knowledge management is about sucking knowledge out of peoples’ heads to re-use without needing the person who created it – an approach usually doomed to failure. Far more knowledge is transferred through conversations between people than from reading documents.

Do people need to work in pairs or small groups regularly? Either give them an office (they are likely to be noisy if they are working well together) or at least design their area to encourage them to share their activities. Do different teams tend to work in isolation? Do you want them to start sharing ideas across projects? Consider a hub-and-spoke office layout, where the hub is the kitchen/meeting area and, better still, the entrance/exit (lift and/or stairs) meaning people will naturally bump into each other and over hear, interrupt and participate in ad-hoc conversations.

Is open plan always the best way to encourage collaboration? I used to think so. When I first visited Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, in March 2000, I wondered how anyone ever collaborated. Everyone had an office, no open plan at all. You walked down a corridor with doors on either side leading to small individual offices. I remember thinking I could never work effectively in such an environment… until 2 years later when I happened to be working in one of those offices. Everyone I needed to work closely with was located on the same floor. The small office size means there are far more people on each floor than is possible with an open-plan environment. If you are available to talk, you leave your door open. If you do not want to be disturbed, you shut the door. The office is your personal space and you are free to personalise it (sofas, bean bags and all sorts of gizmos are often squeezed in along with the standard desk and chair). Microsoft isn’t daft – if you want your employees to be committed to the company, make them feel part of it. It was one of the most creative and collaborative environments I have ever worked in – completely changed my perspective. (And that experience reminded me of another important point – don’t judge something until you try it for yourself.)

There are lots of opportunities to improve knowledge sharing before even starting to look at how information technologies can help. An organisation’s willingness to build a physical environment that encourages creativity and collaboration is a clear indicator of how seriously the equivalent I.T. projects will be viewed.

…and on to a more important collaborative project for the weekend – Christmas with the family 🙂

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