Make Space Work: Practical Tips to Incite Creativity, Foster Collaboration and Spur Productivity

How do we make our physical space more efficient for how employees are using it today? Here are a few practical tips small businesses can follow in order to transform an ordinary office space into one ripe for idea-sharing, creativity, and productivity.
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While generations past believed they "had arrived" once they reached the ultimate goal of the corner office, motivations these days have shifted. Now more than ever in organizations large and small, employee incentives are shifting away from tangible physical space, to things unrelated to physical space like compensation, recognition, training & mentoring programs. In a paradoxical way, all of these intangible things are putting more pressure than ever on our tangible physical space to perform, and are having a profound impact on the way we work.

Think about it -- absolutely anything I want to learn about is available in a fraction of a second with a simple Google search. Generations entering the workforce now have never known a world without computers (or Wikipedia!). I have a laptop, a smartphone equipped with millions of apps, and frankly I get more done when I'm not interrupted by co-workers who don't seem to notice my headphones are IN. If I physically go to a place, it's because I want to interact with people, share ideas, and challenge myself and others' thought processes. Physical workspace is no longer just where I go to work; it's where we go to work together.

So how do we make our physical space more efficient for how employees are using it today? Here are a few practical tips small businesses can follow in order to transform an ordinary office space into one ripe for idea-sharing, creativity, and productivity.

  1. Align your culture and space. Management by eyeball should be a thing of the past. More and more organizations are abandoning the idea of "Dilbertville" or "Cube farms" for more open and so called "collaborative" plans. While these may be effective for some types of work, experts are still struggling to find the balance in physical space between spurring spontaneous collaboration amongst workers and physical space that allows them to concentrate and get their 'real work' done. Organizations that put more emphasis on WHAT gets done, rather than WHERE it is done will find their workers empowered to make decisions that allow them to be more productive, happier, and potentially even more creative. A recent article in Fast Company suggests that by 2020 there will be six desks for every 10 workers in the US. If connecting with others is the reason we GO to the office, be sure your space breakdowns reflect that. Ten years ago, 80 percent of a typical office space was allotted to individual work, while 20 percent was dedicated to collaborative spaces. A great shift is taking place, and now on average 60 percent of office space is allocated to conference rooms, teaming spaces and shared areas. Make sure your culture allows for these productive, flexible work arrangements, and organize your space accordingly.
  2. One Central Location. While the poor water cooler has gotten a bad rap for being associated with the rumor mill, the camaraderie created by fostering casual relationships between employees simply cannot be replaced by technology. In a white paper by Herman Miller, experts studied "swarm intelligence" which suggested that it's not IQ, but collective intelligence, or how well they work together, that achieved better results. The plethora of team building exercises out there suggests that companies have recognized the value of getting to know your co-workers and its intrinsic relationship to deriving effective results from teams. Drawing on this principle, one of the easiest ways to encourage workplace connectivity in your physical space was developed by HOK. It suggests having a designated space that fosters the 5 C's: Create a Central location, with Comfortable furniture, offering decent Coffee that allows you to feel Connected to the outside world with a bit of CNN. And of course it should be Clean (If you need a 6th "C."). If you build it, "they" (i.e. productive, engaged workers) will come. They will interact. They will build relationships, and they will work more effectively as teams.
  3. Variety of Teaming Spaces. Just like individuals need to be "untethered" to make decisions about how and where they will be most effective, teams working together should have variety within the office as well. Sadly, meetings have become the replacement for true team creativity, and the physical space can have a big effect on how creative and effective teams are when working together. To quote the book CoCreate by Teknion, "Collaboration is very different than cooperation." We want our workers engaged. Consider creating separate spaces for the types of activities that will happen in your space, or create smaller flexible spaces that can adapt from one type to another. These could include, but are not limited to, brainstorming spaces, formal conference rooms, project "work" rooms, and small private meeting spaces for one-on-one interaction. Understand the types of activities needed for your business, and align your team spaces to reflect that. As you are developing and furnishing these spaces, consider posture. For example, standing height surfaces suggest a lower commitment level and may be more suitable for short, to-the-point interactions. Comfortable lounge seating can cause participants to become "critics" --a problem that can be addressed by handing them a marker to write on an IdeaPaint wall, which encourages participation and engagement. For each space, certainly allow for technology integration, but don't neglect the low tech element that pen, paper, markers and dry erase can bring.

While we've focused here on collaboration and encouraging teamwork to incite creativity, I'd be remiss to close without touching on the need for individual contributions. The most important thought I can leave you with is this: think, and then think together. Collaboration has become such a buzzword in our work culture and it's possible that people have forgotten the need to think before you act. In the New York Times article, "The Rise of the New Groupthink," we are challenged to remember that we cannot rely on meetings, collaboration and brainstorming alone. "Culturally, we're often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process." The challenge is in creating a physical workspace that fosters meaningful connections each and every time we enter, yet allows the individual to be productive as well.

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