Soccer team in a huddle

Forget Foosball: Creating a Collaborative Workplace

November 18, 2015 by Sam Yen, John Hack

Mars Drinks’ new West Chester, Pennsylvania, headquarters features working spaces that resemble dens, kitchens, and living rooms, as well as conference rooms. While there are no private offices, there are places to get away for a phone call or other work requiring privacy.

Floor-to-ceiling glass along each side of the building offers employees—the company calls them associates—views of the surrounding lawn and landscaped walking paths. As befits a company that  supplies  other  businesses  with  coffee,  tea,  hot  chocolate, and brewing equipment, hot drinks are always close at hand.

The company invested US$29 million in the renovation, which includes a new coffee-roasting operation and expanded research and development facilities. It aims to promote closer collaboration among associates and foster product and service innovation. “Much of the space is organized into neighborhoods, where people feel a sense of alignment and connection with their colleagues,” says Tracy Brower, global vice president of workplace vitality with the company, a division of US$33 billion Mars Inc. “You feel like you’re empowered to do the work, like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself, and that your work matters.”

There is more to these office transformations than a once-every-few-years update to the furniture.

It can be tempting to view such investments as a fad, a way to split the difference between two common and frequently criticized workplace designs. The warren of cubicles surrounded by private offices and punctuated by conference rooms with large tables discourages interaction; the open-plan expanse, with its lack of quiet spaces, thwarts concentration. A layout that offers the best of all worlds—private spaces where employees can work without interruption, public spaces where they can meet and mingle, meeting rooms that support teamwork among groups of any size, and wireless connectivity for everyone’s laptop—accommodates a spectrum of work styles and makes employees productive and happy.

But to digital business leaders, researchers, and others who study workplace trends, there is more to these office transformations than a once-every-few-years update to the furniture. Forward-thinking companies are responding to how the nature of work itself is changing. Today, employees must be able to access information quickly, interact with each other easily, and collaborate across large distances. The workplace design and the equipment provided can make the difference between engaging and empowering the best employees, and losing their expertise and contributions to another firm.

A Vision for the Modern Workspace

In a connected, human-centered workspace, the virtual and physical environments aren’t at odds. Whether a company is developing digital business models or improved kitchen knives, employees have flexible spaces that support group collaboration, private work, and presentations. They can pick the tools they need in the moment to access information and connect with colleagues, whether or not they’re in the same location.

To get it right, employers will have to let employees’ needs drive decisions about the space and the tools they use, rather than forcing workers to adapt to a generic environment and the company’s predetermined tools. It’s conceivable that every physical workspace will look different, depending on where it is in the world, the type of work that is done there, the prevailing corporate culture, and the business strategy. The same factors will likely determine how, and when, people interact virtually and the tools that they use to do so. An R&D group developing new products and services will have a different type of space and different tools than a call center.

In a connected, human-centered workspace, the virtual and physical environments aren’t at odds.

At MIT, the Sloan Office of Executive Education includes staff and contractors who establish and run programs overseas. The headquarters team is used to working with colleagues in remote locations. But until a portion of the core team had to move out of its home base at the Sloan School of Management in 2013 for a building renovation—to a space three-quarters of a mile away—local employees in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came to the office every day. After moving, staff frequently traveled across campus to meet with colleagues.

“We ended up running, without really formalizing it, an organization where people were spending a lot of time out of the office,” says Peter Hirst, associate dean for executive education. “It seemed a bit artificial to be resisting the requests that we were increasingly getting from people to have more flexible work arrangements.”

Hirst and colleagues responded by rethinking every job, starting with the idea that no job required an employee to be on site five days a week if they could work better elsewhere. Then they looked for ways to keep everyone connected. The solutions included mandating one day per week that the entire team comes to the office, requiring everyone to share their calendars, and deploying new communications technologies, including telepresence robots that enable remote workers to “visit” colleagues in their offices by driving a videoconferencing-enabled iPad around the building.

Because the education programs that the team develops increasingly employ digital-delivery models (including virtual classrooms, where students participate as avatars), using a variety of collaboration tools for meetings when employees are off site helps everyone understand how to apply them. “We’ve been quite successful in creating these environments where people really feel immersed,” Hirst says. “It helps when we use those platforms for innovation meetings.”

Now Hirst is contemplating what type of space—and how much of it—the team will need in the future. With competition for space in the renovated building, the team isn’t likely to get all of its old space back. “The team would love to have a base of operations that is 10 yards away from the nexus of activity in the school,” he explains. “So how can we leverage these flexible working arrangements? If we don’t ask for a more traditional-type space, maybe we can get workspace that is closer.”

For instance, although some people work best if they have a permanent desk to come to every day, others won’t care where they work as long as they have access to all the information and systems they need. “My ideal would be that we have a flexible enough space that everybody will be able to find a way to work most effectively—that we recognize that we are a very diverse team and that diversity is one of our strengths,” Hirst says.

For many companies, the transformation to a flexible, connected workplace is a leap, just as it has been for Hirst and his team. A lot can go wrong when you shake up people’s work routines, whether it’s their morning conversation with colleagues in the coffee room or where they plug in their laptops. “Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can simply put in a slide and soft seating and it will drive productivity and collaboration and make the workplace more fun. Productivity drops because it’s not part of the core values or strategy,” notes Regus’s Golgart.

This story is an excerpt from “Forget Foosball: You Can’t Rely on Games and Gimmicks to Create a Collaborative Workplace,”  from the Q4 2015 issue of Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly. 

To read the full cover story, click here.

 

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