Guest blog: Do open working spaces really encourage collaboration?

Business coach Simon Darnton on developing a collaborative environment for your business
12th April 2017
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In part 1 of this series of collaboration, I gave a definition of collaboration as a social phenomenon. I also suggested focussing on being and doing your best to drive collaborative efforts. This should include the working environment as it is critical to collaboration.

“Open-plan work environments tend not to improve productivity”


Many leading companies, including the eminent names of Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft, attempt to foster collaboration by coercing group thinking and sharing of ideas. To do this, not only do they manipulate social interactions between people, they engineer the physical and working environment to do so too. They open all the boundaries, force everyone together, make them meet others, to talk and socialise. A number of years back, working from home was banned by Yahoo! because it was thought people were more innovative and collaborative when together. There’s been reference in the media that Google makes people wait in queues in their restaurants specifically to make them socialise.

These open-plan work environments are designed to aid the accidental meeting of minds that will create the next big ideas for them. They want to create emergent social spaces for small teams to share ideas. Barriers are removed, break-out areas are provided and desk arrangements configured to foster connections between people.

It’s easy to buy in to what these large and very successful companies are doing.

I’ve worked in these types of environments where not only have I dealt with big organisational development questions, I’ve been privileged to be allowed to explore the experiences of people having to work in them, at junior through to senior levels.

I think they’re making some rather big mistakes in what they’re doing. Here’s why.

Collaboration is about production

The premise of collaboration is to produce something. The associated human relationships need to enable people to work together to be productive.

However open-plan work environments tend not to improve productivity. In fact they’ve been shown in many cases to reduce productivity by significant amounts; by as much as 15-20%. You’d have to question whether this amounts to a potentially fruitful environment to support collaboration.

Clearly something in people’s experiences aren’t quite adding up to the design. Why might this be?

In the tech space, your work is largely knowledge based. It requires focus, concentration, and thinking. You also need privacy and personal space sometimes (I’ll admit that I tend to talk to myself, hum and pace around when I’m focused on some aspects of my work and this doesn’t really work great in public office spaces!). All of these things support the good production of work for people yet they are disrupted in open-plan offices.

“Experiencing people in your vicinity throwing out ideas, wanting to break-out for a conversation and sharing is not necessarily a helpful tendency when you need to get things done”


In open-plan office spaces there are inherent distractions of people making noise, moving around you and interrupting your chains of thought. Experiencing people in your vicinity throwing out ideas, wanting to break-out for a conversation and sharing is not necessarily a helpful tendency when you need to get things done. Having rules like ‘headphones on means don’t disturb me’ doesn’t resolve this. You can tell when someone is hovering and there is always some sense of social tension and self-consciousness around this anyway.

So the larger companies like Google fabricate work spaces to provide some rooms where you can be alone and think. If you’ve been to any open-plan type arrangement you’ll notice that these rooms are in short supply and sometimes in great demand. Some of them are also holed up in places you probably wouldn’t naturally associate with stimulating the thinking juices either.

Using these ‘thinking’ rooms introduces other things that are quite disruptive to any flow of work because you’ve got to think, “oh, I need some quiet time to focus”, then go and find a room (or book one first), settle in, get comfy… and your ideas as well as your mood have probably gone by then. Setting a routine of doing it every Wednesday might help, but I’m not sure by how much.

Another source for discomfort in these environments and in particular those where there’s hot-desking going on, is that you can never find a home; this matters. As humans we like and need our nests and we work better when we can personalise them.

“There are risks that group thinking can suppress innovative ideas, especially disruptive ones”


When it comes to innovation, it’s often considered part and parcel of collaboration (and it’s one of the main reasons companies want collaboration). It’s thought that ideas emerge better out of a group than they would the individual. I’m not sure there’s actually any evidence to suggest this is true, yet some evidence is emerging to the opposite. The gestation of new ideas takes some care. Valuable ideas need to be nurtured, sometimes in private until they’re mature enough to be exposed to wider audiences. In this sense, there are risks that group thinking can suppress innovative ideas, especially disruptive ones.

Cultivating a collaborative environment

It may be helpful to view collaboration, innovation and productivity as related qualities of a whole and aim for a dynamic balance that works for you and your company. In doing this, keep in mind that unfortunately, collaboration does not always yield good results, it can waste a lot of time and effort and produce very little. Sometimes it can be costly. The environment you create should ideally allow for appropriate collaboration and takes a judicious approach to it!

Make sure you get a feel for your own experience of the social and physical environment. This is something that is regularly overlooked. Possibly because we just go to work and that’s the environment we work in so we don’t put too much thought into it. Check in with yourself to gauge how you respond to the space.

Recently I went into a snazzy, architect acclaimed workspace. It was designed for its purpose yet as I walked into the space, I felt myself wanting to literally pull my neck in. There was plenty of head space but the design made it feel like the ceiling was bearing down on me. It was stuffy and I felt enclosed.

Another example is of a large, city-based corporate with newly refurbished offices. As I was walking down the corridor to the meeting space I began to feel disorientated. This got worse when I went into the open-plan work space. There was a uniformity to space (and the people) that seemed to do nothing for individualism, nor did it have any creative vibe to it. I also found that people generally avoided eye contact. Neither of these are examples of environments supporting good work, let alone collaboration.

From the social aspect there will always be a vibe around a place. This could invite you to connect and share with people, sometimes the ambience can be quite hostile.

If you’re in a small tech firm or start-up you may not have the resources to physically change your shared workspace too much, but there are things you can do.

Here are some suggestions for you consider in cultivating a balanced collaborative environment for your workspace:

  1. Go back to basics. First prioritise getting the environment right for yourself and others to do good work:

Work out where, how and under what circumstances you find this happens. Explore what kind of frame of mind is best for this. Think about what disrupts the process in the environment.

This could mean allowing a better balance between home working and office working, or different working times, for example. Think laterally, use your imagination and try different things. Does it always have to be in an office or office type of space?

This process will also require developing better awareness as well as the courage and conviction to act on it.

Nurture the conditions to enable yourself and your people to be productive in your work, especially through interpersonal relationships.

  1. Provide some social mechanisms for you and those you work with to share experiences and ideas – even if it’s just afternoon tea and cake in a common area. Make sure it’s without agenda or expectations, and entirely voluntary – so no explicit or implicit pressures for everyone to attend or talk about anything specific! 
  2. Recognise and embrace that collaboration is not just achieved when people are in physical proximity with each other. There is some research suggesting remote and distance collaboration can be more effective. 
  3. Provide freedom. Let people do their thing. Explore what motivates them. Understand where their passions and interests lie. Give them autonomy, demonstrate their capabilities are valued whilst providing them the opportunity to grow. Nurture a culture where people relate to each other. Ask them what really engages them in what they’re doing and with those they’re doing it with.