The Collaborative Office

The Collaborative Office

Today’s business environment has dramatically changed in the past few years. The marketplace has become global, creating a non-stop hypercompetitive environment that requires constant creativity and innovation. We are in the midst of an epic recession, with high unemployment created by downsized organizations across many industries, which requires companies to do more with less—forcing employees to work harder, smarter, and longer.

Business, and the world in general, have become more complex. Countries, economies, and people are more deeply interconnected than ever before, and this connectivity continues to expand at a rapid pace. For the first time in U.S. history, the workplace has four generations working sideby- side with diverse perspectives, motivations, attitudes, and needs.

These changes are driving alternative work strategies that impact not only the workplace but create a fundamental shift in how we work. Current research has revealed that most work today is done in collaboration with others, versus individual contribution. Increased knowledge sharing leads to enhanced productivity, improved quality, and accelerated innovation, which is all required in today’s business environment. This fundamental shift provides a huge opportunity for our industry, which encompasses a wide variety of technologies in very diverse locations.

Trends in the Workplace

Over the years the office workplace has evolved from openness to private spaces and back again to open spaces. From the 1920s until the mid 1960s, the open, bullpen office concept dominated many working environments. You have probably seen photos of large, open spaces with row upon row of tables or individual desks, surrounded by private offices for the managers to oversee the business. During those days the work was primarily repetitive tasks, and the space planning was just an extension of the factory environment. Although you could consider it to be an open office, this business environment was not about collaboration, but instead about timely task completion without conversation.

As job functions shifted from repetitive tasks to more knowledge-based work, and a telephone on every desk became the norm, the open office environment became chaotic. Concentration was a challenge, and privacy was nonexistent. During the mid-1960s, inventor Robert Propst devised an office setup with short partition walls set at 90- or 120-degree angles, allowing workers to face away from each other, providing a feeling of privacy. As time went on, the partitions became taller, completely covered in fabric, and much closer together. As they continued to evolve and became known as cubicles, they turned in to massive maze-like structures that often went as far as the eye could see— obviously not a great environment to promote spontaneous collaboration.

The Spaces of Tomorrow

Although few workplaces today currently support collaboration well, the trend in modern office space design is moving to fewer individual workspaces, with a larger portion of the space being dedicated to solutions that foster collaboration. These collaboration spaces typically vary in size and technology support, ranging from large, formal presentation spaces to small, two-person alcoves. The mix of space types as well as their proximity to more individual workstations is critical. With the economic driven reduction in workforce and the need to reduce one of the top operating costs— real estate—many companies are taking one more step by eliminating an assigned desk or workstation. Instead, they are opting for hot-desking or hotelling workstations for employees who only come to the office occasionally. The difference between the two is whether the workstation can be reserved ahead of time (hot desking) or on a first-come, first-served basis (hotelling).

Over that past few years, the quantity of employees working from home, or telecommuting, at least on a part-time basis, has been steadily growing. The availability of quality broadband as well as wireless voice and data on handheld devices allows transparency between office and home office. Another interesting trend is satellite facilities where space is available to work or meet with clients. These are typically located in close proximity to their user base offering an alternative to a long commute. This strategy allows the company to further reduce the quantity of workspaces in the “main” office.

R. Randal Riebe ( is the director of AV integrator business development at Polycom.

Make It Work

Some of the interesting data-points from research on these new types of working environments are: 1) technology is required, and 2) access to information should be equal for all participants.

As you would guess, collaboration spaces with large-screen displays, audioconferencing, videoconferencing, interactive whiteboards, and easy access to data and power are the spaces that get used. Nontechnology spaces are last choice, if used at all. Collaboration seems to work best in spaces that support eight or fewer people, physically and virtually. Additionally, all participants need equal access to information displays, as well as the ability to see each other eye-to-eye. As you could predict, one of the key requirements is that the technology be simple to use and transparent to the purpose at hand.

Of course, to make a new collaborative workspace environment a success requires more than just technology. These spaces will only pay off in productivity and creativity if a strong foundation of organization, regulations, leadership, and cooperation exists.

Although large, complex meeting room projects may quickly become few and far between, the increased quantity of collaboration “mini-rooms” in the main, satellite, and home office will drive exponential growth in collaborative AV technology.