7 Ways to Set Up a Collaborative Space that Doesn’t Suck

I see it in every company or organization that I work with; lots of money spent kitting out meeting space or collaborative space so that people can work together. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the space is terrible, and largely unsuitable for collaboration.

If you’ve ever wondered why it feels so good to sit in an Italian piazza, why some restaurants feel more romantic than others, or why university lectures feel so boring, it’s because we are, as humans, profoundly affected by the spaces we are in – they shape our attention, our emotions and the nature of all interactions that take place within them. Ignore this at your peril.

So for those of you in mid-renovation of your offices in the hopes of making the workplace more collaborative, take heed of the following 7 patterns:

Give me natural light

Like plants, humans need natural light. Plenty of research shows that daylight affects attentiveness, productivity and absenteeism – allowing the light to shine in helps boost the emotional state of those in the room; where creativity and collaboration is the goal, natural light should be on your spec list.

Where possible, that natural light should be on two walls; having a “light tunnel” means that half of the people are backlit, creating a subtle psychological tax on everyone else.

If a plant wouldn’t survive in the room, don’t stick humans in there.

Have enough space

Just like the height of your ceilings can impact your creativity, being crammed into a room like Tic Tacs makes people feel constrained, not to mention the fact that it creates physical barriers to moving from one mode of working to another. Collaborative work should allow people to work as a large group, and split into smaller groups in the flow of their tasks, ideally all within the same contiguous space. 

Have a suitable setup for interaction

A circle is great for a focused conversation where you can see everyone’s face. Sitting around a table is great for working on individual tasks, together – though King Arthur had a round table for a reason. Sitting in an arc facing a whiteboard is great for capturing common ideas in a common space. Sitting in opposing rows works well for debate. Agora-style seating works for passive reception of presented content or speeches. What type of interactions do you want people to have as they are collaborating?

Being conscious of what types of collaborations are meant within your space (sharing, transactional co-creation, integrated/extended co-creation, co-working, cross-pollination, parallel work) and matching the physical setup to support it increases your odds of achieving your intended outcome, or at least keeps you from sabotaging your own work.

Have flexible space

Hopefully you read the last point, and thought – “But over time, we’ll need to do all of those things! How do I know which setup to choose?”

Exactly. Plonking the default boardroom table in your meeting room means you will only ever be setup for one type of interaction, and your space will suck for everything else. Collapsible tables, stacking chairs, rolling whiteboards and plugs all over the place means that whatever the needs of your group, you can setup to accommodate their work. Think: airwalls that let you open up to bigger groups and furniture that can flow throughout.

Have technology that knows its place

Technology is meant to support your work, not dictate how and where it’s done. Think about the interaction scenarios first, and all the ways that you might want to set the space, and let the technology follow. Don’t let the placement of plugs, or the only VGA cable dictate how every meeting or collaborative session should take place from now on. Screens should either roll, or be easy to “beam” to from where ever you’re set up. Audio and video conferencing should supplement the physical setup, not distort it towards the phone in the corner.

Have support for analog

Just as taking notes by hand supports better recall than notes taken on a computer, allowing people to work in analog allows them to process complex information more simply. Whiteboards, physical models, sticky notes and Legos allow people to construct common concepts without the tunnelling effect of watching someone take notes into PowerPoint. Let people work together on the boards, and if you need to share it quickly, surely someone has an iPhone in their pocket? Try Turboscan.

Try making it look nice

Knowledge work should be in a knowledge-rich environment, and one that feels active and creative. Throw in some plants (your room has natural light anyways, right?) and a library of interesting, inspiring and challenging books. Not only will the plants make you smarterthe books will too, just by being present…and heck, you might pick one up, and get an idea or two. And they look nice, too.