The end of workplace collaboration? Here’s how to fix that.

Workplace settings that encourage community are also ripe for “accidental collisions,” or chance meetings that lead to unexpected conversations between employees who may work in different hubs and rarely have the opportunity to engage with one another. This “space in-between” the workstation — environments that are playful, neutral, accessible and whose primary activity is conversation — presents a unique opportunity for spontaneous collaboration and innovation.

If we can appreciate the value of accidental collisions, we must also ask how we can preserve or recreate the space given how the coronavirus has drastically changed how and where we work. These physical gathering spaces once viewed as a way to bring people together are now seen as potential “infection points” and are closed off by the need for social distancing. Additionally, working from home physically cuts off employees from their teammates, having to rely entirely on technology like Zoom to establish regular touchpoints.

Can technology provide the opportunity for accidental collisions, and if so, what will these spaces look like? The key is to look beyond tomorrow’s Zoom meeting to the future of the work-from-home experience in order to provide transformative and purposeful design solutions.

Why it matters

In his 1989 book, The Great Good Place, American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third space” to define the place where people spend most of their time, subsequent to the primary space of the home and the secondary space of the workplace. Often these third spaces provide a sense of connectedness — the physical place helps to propel relationships and build community. Think playgrounds, shopping malls, even the seating arrangement in Starbucks that encourages easy interaction and conversation. Recognizing the value of these central gathering spaces in the community, architects began to embrace methods of community design, even seeing if they could be applied in the secondary space: the workplace.

Traditional office floor plans tend to follow a top-down design with single offices for executives, cubicles for middle-management and an often-underused reception area for the few. Community design in architecture emphasizes bottom-up design, putting people at the center of the design process by listening to and surveying their needs.

Community design in the form of central gathering space, and reconfigurable and informal work areas not only helps to foster workplace relationships but can also promote a sense of corporate identity and stimulate collaboration, engagement and innovation. And it’s catching on. In a Forbes article, Lynn Metz, Vice President of Sales, Architecture and Design at Hayworth North America, describes the ratio of gathering space to private space in a traditional office was 20/80. That expectation changed to 30/70 with the open-plan office concept. “Now, the ratio has dramatically changed to at least 50/50,” says Metz. “And I often see a full flip to 70/30 in highly collaborative environments.”

Additionally, an INC. article points to how Pixar and Google transformed their offices by applying social-spatial science, informed in part by a 2013 study at the University of Michigan that reveals how coworkers in the same building are 33 percent more likely to collaborate than those who occupy different buildings, and 57 percent more likely if they are on the same floor. Given the proven value of fostering a social space in the workplace, how do we then recreate this in the digital space?

Stop-gap app solutions

Conventional solutions to the absence of a physical space when working from home immediately presented themselves in the form of apps like Zoom and Slack — both of which are excellent and widely popular tools. However, these tools still fall short when we’re seeking a social space for accidental collisions to occur. James Helms, Vice President of Design Strategic Partnerships Group at Intuit, created “wild channels” on Slack to share pictures of what everyone has been doing outside of work in an attempt to maintain a sense of community. But he acknowledges that technology can only do so much. “Even with Zoom, you have to make the plan to do the thing, which eliminates spontaneous interaction,” he says. “We’re going to have to replace these collision points with something less risky. We’re looking for it, but we haven’t solved the problem.”

Vice President of Sprinklr Strategic Design, Marshall Kirkpatrick, echoes the belief that while “there’s an app for that” often seems true, we might need to look beyond the app to recreate a shared space that allows for the spontaneous exchange of ideas. “The ability to draw connections between seemingly disconnected ideas and projects — that’s where so much value gets created,” Kirkpatrick says. “It’s a uniquely human value and it would be incredible if we had the means of replicating those opportunities while we work from home.”

Seeking real, innovative change — together

One path towards real innovation — pushing past the easy solutions and conventional wisdom — requires interdisciplinary collaboration that applies research and bold thinking to produce impactful results. Enter the SCADpro FutureProof Design Challenge.

SCADpro is a collaborative innovation studio that connects current and future creative business leaders to discover what’s next. In this particular challenge, more than 30 brands provided coaching to interdisciplinary teams composed of more than 100 Savannah College of Art and Design students, alumni, and professors to address the challenges of the at-home employee experience. Teams were given only 48 hours to research, ideate and present a transformative solution.

Understanding the value of a social workspace for happy accidents to occur, many teams immediately sought solutions to rebuild that space in a new way, resulting in unexpected, purposeful design concepts. One team used mixed reality — a combination of AR and VR technology — to create a new channel of communication with the intent of building a stronger network across the digital environment. Another team devised a way for IoT products to break the digital barrier when working from home, and yet another created an immersive communication system that incorporates directional audio to create virtual break rooms and after-work events like karaoke and trivia that feel more authentic.

Bringing together the world’s biggest brand and pairing them with interdisciplinary design teams not only drives innovation to, in this case, recreate the social space for accidental collisions to occur, but it’s also an illustration of why companies should invest in creating an intentional space for this innovation to occur, connecting people from different hubs, having conversations in a neutral space and seeing where their collective creativity can take them.

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Future-proofing industry with transformative creators and intentional design.