Breaking down walls between employees
You’ve hired qualified employees. You’ve trained them well. Beyond this, your organization may rely on management to inspire creativity, and boost productivity and loyalty among prized talent. But an often overlooked way to create these positive business results among staff is through the design of the workspace itself.
A facility that encourages collaboration — or “we space” — can foster better workplace communication and promote a team environment that leads to greater workplace innovation.
Carolyn Rickard-Brideau is very aware of the importance of we space. As a partner of national architecture and design firm Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, and president of Little’s Arlington, Va., office, Rickard-Brideau and her colleagues have helped numerous clients, including Aetna Inc., create space that improves collaboration among employees.
In public office areas, we space can be created by setting up support areas or pockets in hallways that provide room to sit and hold informal conversations. “When you come back from getting coffee down the hallway, you may see someone you’re working with on a project and begin to talk,” Rickard-Brideau explains. To make better use of these informal exchanges, furnish support areas with chairs, whiteboards and markers. “When people are getting up to get coffee, they don’t think to bring pen and paper with them,” she explains.
Know your goals when developing we space, recommends Rickard-Brideau. Some businesses want to reinforce culture or create a collaborative environment. Others want to encourage interpersonal communication within departments or even boost communication between teams who share the same floor.
For Aetna, Little recently tweaked the we space concept by combining it with wayfinding techniques to help boost teaming among the company’s employees while simultaneously improving office navigation and individual privacy. Each of the facility’s four floors was arranged by functions, which were tucked away behind color-coded walls. These included:
RED WALLS - for central services (copiers, printers and faxes)
YELLOW WALLS - for collaboration spaces
GREEN WALLS - for relaxation ("decompression") areas
BLUE WALLS - phone rooms and private rooms for projects requiring privacy
“We selected these colors specifically because of the positive effect they would have on people,” Rickard-Brideau says. Employees were pleased with the design. “People specifically mentioned the use of color and the ease it allowed them to use the spaces intuitively.”
Another important step in creating we space is preplanning, according to Cindy Gall, a principal with Milwaukee-based Engberg Anderson Design Partnership, which designed new offices for Bader Rutter & Associates, a national business-to-business marketing services agency. The reason: When creating we space, it is important to realize that you also are changing the culture of the organization. “As such, it is important to start the process early,” she notes. “In fact, we began talking with management two years in advance to see what they wanted the culture to be.” One thing agency leaders said they wanted was to create a more interactive environment for staff.
Bader Rutter & Associates sought to better integrate its service teams and nourish its creative talent after 30 years of growth caused unintended staff isolation as employees became spread across three floors and eight wings of the agency’s longtime office building. The move into new state-of-the-art offices meant the time was right to foster more cohesive teamwork.
By adding common lounge areas with chair-and-table groupings outside of conference rooms and in hallway pockets, the new office space encourages employees to interact more often during impromptu meetings.
Key to creating successful we space: know your goals and preplan.
However, it was also important that the facility provide employee privacy and reduce noise distractions. To accomplish this, employees’ workstations feature sound-absorbing panels, which provide the benefits of private offices, but also encourage personal interaction.
“We provided management with tours of different types of work environments so they could see examples of the various options,” Gall notes. The focus was on how to balance the need for privacy with the importance of encouraging interaction. “Management understood the importance of doing all of this planning up front, rather than just making arbitrary decisions without understanding the consequences,” she adds.