How to Build a Collaborative Workplace Infrastructure

By Dummies Press

When thinking about building a collaborative workplace, you can consider interpersonal relationships and communication styles between managers and employees. Next are the Workplace 2.0 considerations: physical working space, tech tools that encourage collaborative work, and managing to balance collaboration with remote learning.

The changing physical office space

In response to this hyper-collaborative new generation of employees, the physical working space has shifted as well. Office cubicles have been replaced by open rooms with pods, lounge areas, and plants. Whiteboards have been painted onto large walls, affording Millennials spaces to brainstorm at will. Rooms with plush couches and mood lighting invite employees to come in, sit down, get comfortable, and innovate or meditate. In some extreme cases, treehouses have actually been designed for the office (you may think that one’s a bit excessive).

The light side of these developments and changes is revolutionary and positive. Millennials see closed doors and corner offices as an extra barrier they need to break down to pursue their goal of collaboration. Many prefer the access and opportunities for impromptu collaboration that open workspaces afford them.

The dark side of these developments is how unproductive and unwelcome some feel in these environments. Baby Boomers may bristle at an email announcement that they’re going to lose the four walls they worked 30 years to achieve. Gen Xers could run in the other direction once they find out that they’re losing the solace of a private space. All that darkness aside, many can see the benefits of open space for its encouragement of conversation and transparency.

Build your dream space

To build the best environment of flexibility for your office, take appropriate steps to make sure that the space matches trends for your workforce. When in doubt about what to do, ask your staff! They’ll like the ability to contribute to a dream and feel a sense of pride when they see their ideas materialized in a new space.

Defeat the nightmares to achieve your dream

There are numerous constraints to building the dream. If you confront any of the following, don’t fret! There are some simple solutions:

  • Conundrum: What if I can’t knock down walls?

If you have offices that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, leave doors open as much as possible to promote that feeling of collaboration. Open windows and shades to allow for as much natural light as possible. Don’t underestimate the power of greenery — it gives the vibe of open, natural environments. Or consider turning one of those walled rooms into a meditation room or a lounge area to serve as an alternate room for working with a quality vibe. Don’t worry, people who want to make that change will eagerly assign themselves to the task force to get it done well and get it done cheaply. (Hello, IKEA!)

  • Conundrum: If I have a collaborative work space, how do I signal that I need to work without interruption?
    • Use headphones as a sign that you’re busy (headphones on means “I’m not available”).
    • Adopt the stoplight method. Create red-yellow-green signs for employee desks that signify their availability. Red means “no distractions at all, please,” yellow means “you can interrupt only if necessary,” and green means “I’m available for any and all inquiries!”
    • Give everyone a chalkboard and chalk. Then, people can write their own modern version of an AOL “away message.” Depending on their current working state, they can indicate whether they want to be bothered or not. For example, the chalkboard could read, “Acceptable interruptions today are client questions. Tomorrow, I’ll accept cat video interruptions.”
    • Appoint flex offices as refuge rooms. Many companies are taking to the idea of a “refuge room” where people can find an environment they need to get work done. This way, it’s like a haven.

Don’t alienate generations that don’t want a collaborative workspace. You may have heard the horror stories about companies that completely did away with all walls and corner offices in a misguided attempt to appeal to next-generation hires. Guess what happened? Those Boomers and even Xers who worked so hard to get to the corner office … well, that tangible reward and acknowledgment of their hard work was all ripped away, somewhat brusquely, from them to make room for the next generation. Don’t fall into that trap or you’ll see a mass exodus of the older generations that have been so loyal and fought so hard to get where they are in the organization today. Find a way to meet in the middle. Offer some open collaborative spaces but leave room for closed-door offices as well. Exactly where you land on the spectrum from traditional closed-door offices to completely open-office spaces filled with beanbag chairs will depend entirely on your company culture, but the important thing is to keep all generations in mind when deciding where you stand.

Use instant messaging as a key workplace tool

Technology offers a wealth of tools to help expand upon and improve how your employees collaborate. Email changed the game when it entered the scene, and it cut down on unnecessary meetings. A new method of collaboration was introduced — the virtual way. Millennials, perhaps infamous for their love of email (over phone anyway), are embracing another way to collaborate in the workplace — instant messaging (IM).

Say “IM” to some managers, and you might induce some eye-rolling. Childish. Frivolous. Unnecessary. Silly. Inefficient. These are just a few of the many words that bubble up when managers are asked to describe instant messaging within their workforce. Instead of seeing the value that instant messaging can bring to day-to-day tasks, this platform is written off as a Millennial tool for chatting or sending memes to one another in the office.

While, yes, instant-messaging tools are used for strengthening interpersonal relationships at work, the effect also extends far beyond that. Millennials use IM platforms as a way to quickly and efficiently communicate ideas. Much like Xers saw email as a desperately needed and blessed way to cut down on meetings, Millennials view IM as a desperately needed and blessed way to cut down on emails. They use it as a way to improve the work flow of the day, and, in many cases, it works.

The problem seen is managers rebelling against the idea of these IM platforms and laying judgment on Millennials who choose to use them as a main communication tool. The frustration around this topic is understandable. Managers can barely keep from coming unhinged when they tell the typical “Millennial-on-IM” story that goes something like this:

“We all sit in pods in our office, and Ron was at his desk while I was sitting right across from him. He had a question about a project, and instead of just taking off his headphones and asking me directly — thus saving time — he IM’d me. It was the simplest of messages. Why, I mean why couldn’t he just stop what he was doing and take two seconds to ask me directly? He does this all the time, and so do his peers. For the life of me … I just don’t get it.”

At face value, it does seem like Ron was being lazy (and maybe averting yet another face-to-face encounter that he’s not super fond of). But if you look at this through Ron’s eyes (and those of many Millennials), it’s likely he was just trying to be polite and respectful of her time. He’d probably be the first to agree that he’d pinged his manager with a simple, straightforward message. The reason he didn’t just get up and go talk to her in person is that he didn’t want to interrupt her work flow. To him, it might have seemed presumptuous to interject with such a small query. In his mind, sending her an IM was a way for him to ask his question without demanding an immediate response (or clogging up her email inbox). It was a way to be conscientious of her time. She could finish up the task at hand, and get to his IM when she’d wrapped up her email, thought, project, or whatever it was she was working on. It was a move made out of consideration, not out of laziness or a lack of respect.

Despite the frustrations of other generations, IM can be the most efficient and effective way to have quick conversations at work. Recently, there has been much research published about how interruptions, however small, can be incredibly disruptive to the workday. Some suggest that it can take upwards of 20 minutes to regain focus. IMs are a way to skirt the issue, to ask without disrupting workflow or burying a co-worker in unnecessary emails. If you have an IM system, embrace it! Refrain from monitoring it so closely that everyone feels like they’re being watched for response time and content. Millennials use IM tools to increase productivity and to communicate in a smart, thoughtful way. And yes, it is possible that Millennials will also turn to IMing as a fun outlet to communicate with their peers, and that’s a really beautiful thing because they’ll be building relationships that are critical to a happy workplace.

How to collaborate from afar

Remote workers are becoming more commonplace as technological advances make it easy to work from home, or anywhere really. Whether they’re working from home or from a coffee shop or wherever the case might be, they’re still a part of your team and they still want to feel like they’re a piece of the overall pie.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “out of sight, out of mind.” When your employees aren’t showing up at the office day after day, this becomes a very real danger. The onus falls on the manager to implement guidelines that ensure remote Millennial employees feel as if they matter, they’re being invested in, and that even though they’re not in the office, their contributions are still an important point of collaboration for the team.

Think about what you do for the Millennials who are in the office. How often do you meet with them? Look at everything from the casual morning hello to the feedback you may give them after a presentation or a project. Try to mimic this behavior with your remote worker, plus an extra 20 percent to make up for what’s lost in translation. Try to check in with them every morning for a quick hello. Solicit their ideas and opinions about meetings they dial in for. If at all possible, create opportunities for them to come into the office and interact with their peers and managers.