3 ways office collaboration can boost innovation

April 27, 20165 Minute Read

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Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer sparked a national conversation about working from home when she announced that the company’s remote workers had to hoof it back into the office. Her reasoning was simple: “people are more productive when they’re alone, but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.”

Mayer noted that the idea for Yahoo’s Weather app was the brainchild of two engineers who worked in the same office. She isn’t alone in her desire to encourage office collaboration; according to the most recent study from Global Workplace Analytics, while more employers are open to having their staff work remotely, only about 3.7 million employees, or just 2.8 percent of the workforce, work from home at least half the time. There are hard cost benefits to employers who let employees work from home, according to the Global Workplace Analytics report, which found that a typical business could save around $11,000 per employee. However, some studies have measured the cost benefits of office collaboration.

Physical proximity has been shown to enhance virtual communication. One study by Sociometric Solutions found that engineers who shared space were 20 percent more likely to communicate digitally and emailed four times more frequently when collaborating on a project. This led to a big boost in productivity: they completed projects 32 percent quicker than remote workers.

Some executives are willing to bet on this return—Steve Jobs famously did this at Pixar when he placed animators next to computer scientists in a cavernous industrial space to encourage them to interact and share ideas. More recently, Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, poured a $300 million investment into Las Vegas, in part to foster the kind of in-person collaboration that sparks innovation. Hsieh’s Downtown Project was spurred by his belief in the power of serendipitous encounters that can only occur when people run into each other on the street or in co-working spaces. The idea is that even solo entrepreneurs can reap the benefits of company collaboration as they work alongside other founders.

Praising the open office

Love them or hate them, many innovations have emerged from trading ideas in open office spaces. Take Google headquarters (a.k.a. the Googleplex), where co-founder Larry Page can be seen working elbow-to-elbow with staff. But the search giant’s other offices are just as focused on getting people to interact and collaborate. Craig Nevill-Manning, Google’s engineering director in New York, told The New York Times, “Google’s success depends on innovation and collaboration,” and the office design was focused on making it easy for everyone to talk. “Being on one floor here removed psychological barriers to interacting, and we’ve tried to preserve that.”

Far from the dull, gray cubicle farms replete with distractions from coworkers talking too loudly or sending the fragrance of their leftover lunch over the low walls, Google designed offices to work for employees. The offices feature everything from private reading spaces to play areas and customized work stations, some of which are fitted with standing or treadmill desks. At the offices of Square, single-person desks aren’t the default, either. In fact, the company’s built out communal tables and booths—like you would find in a restaurant, but deeper and open on both ends—for teams to work collaboratively. Around the perimeter walls of windows are lounge areas to encourage further gathering of staff.

There’s some evidence to support the office’s potential to boost creativity, Harvard professor Teresa Amabile said. “The theory is that open spaces that are fun, where people want to be, facilitate idea exchange,” she told the Times. “I’ve watched people interact at Google and you see a cross-fertilization of ideas.”

Inspiring creativity with the stroke of a dry erase marker

One simple way that employees can collaborate in the office is by hashing out ideas on a whiteboard. “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. Another psychologist from the University of Washington found that when children wrote text by hand, they were able to produce words more quickly than on a keyboard and expressed more ideas.

It’s tough to use a whiteboard alone at home or in a coffee shop (the baristas have other work to do). In an office environment, the board not only facilitates inspiration but also the gathering of multiple ideas. This, in turn, allows people to process the ideas both as a team and individually on the spot.

Building in fun to foster friendship and big thinking

At the Carlsbad, California, offices of SKLZ, design elements that encourage fun also assist in boosting office collaboration. The startup that offers skill and performance training products and programs for athletes has a neighboring training facility where staff can view pro athletes testing their products through portholes built into a steel catwalk off the main entrance. SKLZ also has open work spaces and lounges where employees can work, as well as discuss where they are in the company’s monthly health and wellness challenges. The office design also incorporates games like knockout basketball to support staff bonding.

Mixing it up with diversity

Although people with similar mindsets are more likely to become friendly, research has shown that, in business, diverse groups are more likely to be creative and innovative as well as impactful on the bottom line. An MIT study found that a mixed gender group at one company contributed to a 41 percent increase in revenue. One of the easiest ways to sow the seeds for more fruitful collaboration is to facilitate chance encounters in a shared office space.

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