Does workplace collaboration need a "Fifth Place"?
By now, everybody may be familiar with the concept of “the third place.” Beyond home and office, there is another place where people in the neighborhood may gather to socialize and sustain community life. The coffee shop was a good example of a third place – local, welcoming and comfortable, a place where we might see others we know and stop to chat.
In its evolution however, the coffee shop eventually became a place of work. With free wifi, mobile technology, and low pressure to buy and move on, the coffee shop gave people a place to get out of home and out of the office, and do work in a more relaxed setting.
As we moved toward and into the Great Recession, the shift of third place as community space to its use as alternative workplace increased as people were pushed out of the office by the relentless corporate quest to reduce space and occupancy cost.
The Third Place moves inside
Then another evolution took place as companies began to draw people back into the office and loosen corporate culture to be more attractive to younger generations. The third place moved into the second place and became a core component in the design of the workspace. The office coffee bar had the potential to increase socialization at work, helping people get to know each other better and begin to shape a more visible sense of community and culture to differentiate the company.
Companies saw that socialization as a critical foundation in the move toward a more collaborative and team-based culture. The reduction in formality leveled the staff and opened up different kinds of exchanges among people. Politics diminished as people recognized that they had shared values and sense of purpose. People began to trust each other and collaboration became more effective.
Emergence of a Fourth Place
Collaboration, in fact, became a key cultural goal. Confronting more complex problems and seeking a more rapid path to market, companies encouraged people with different talents and from different functional silos to come together to solve problems and develop products.
In many cases, however, collaboration was framed as the goal rather than other business intentions and purposes that the practice might facilitate. CEOs voiced appreciation for collaboration as a strategic tool. Facilities people and workplace designers then began to populate offices with obligatory casual seating areas hoping to spark casual conversations and waiting for breakthrough innovations.
Now the first and second places, work and home, began to blend into a new hybrid. Let’s call that a fourth place, the informal office, but then let’s quickly move on. These fourth places were implemented as essential set pieces – a red couch, a low table, maybe a lamp.
I think they are fine signals of a more informal workplace and certainly relieve the relentless march of rows of cubicles and office doors. They are pleasant settings to see, and they do support casual conversation and facilitate some easy information exchanges that may not have occurred before. But they seem off-target from the real needs of collaborative work.
Across a wide swath of our economy, there are businesses of all scales engaged in work requiring or benefiting from collaborative efforts. In most of these cases, collaboration is an ongoing, durable activity, even part of the working culture of the industry or the company.
My business, for example, requires the coordinated integration of the work of a number of very specialized disciplines – architectural design, technical architecture, structural engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, landscape architecture, low-voltage systems design, AV systems design, and on and on. We work together on projects, and there are dozens in the office at the same time. Projects take months to develop prior to construction and then require attention through construction periods of more than a year. We work together in one big room where information exchange, idea testing, complex documents production and other activities are part of the hour-by-hour flow of our work. Collaboration is part of our culture and an essential part of our performance. Collaboration is continuous. We have many types of places for that to take place, and one of our favorites is a big space with technology, white glass walls, rearrangeable furniture, and nearby nutrition. It seems that the old practice of periodic presentations to clients has disappeared. Instead they gather with us in this space for ongoing idea generation and product development.
We have a healthcare insurance company as a client. Theirs is probably one of the more challenged and dynamic businesses these days with shifts in politics, regulation, economics and more causing almost continuous change to their offerings. They are organized as departments and stacked over a dozen floors. They need to develop new products, respond to new issues, build new plans, and continuously modify their business. Their collaboration is formal, but unnecessarily so. It’s formal because other than offices and cubes their workplace only has conference rooms where people can get together to collaborate. As a result, project-based work is only done in conference rooms at scheduled meetings. So their business is slow and is getting challenged by outsiders and startups. In their new offices, reduced to three floors with large open floor plates, people will be in eye contact and casual exchange with each other, but also have custom-design “obeyas” where durable, weeks-long product development projects will take place.
Another recent client is the medical school of a large urban university. Most of its research had been done in classical ways, in specialized lab buildings, with space assigned to individual principal investigators, and collaborative work done mostly within or proximate to the lab and among that lab’s team. Confronting complex regional problems in which health is not just medical, but also linked to social, behavioral and economic factors, their new lab brings together multiple scientific disciplines to support team science. Matters like obesity and cardiac health are now confronted with teams of researchers from basic science, social science, computational sciences and other disciplines and technologies in a building that supports long-term, theme-based, collaborative research.
My point, as you may be able to tell, is that a workspace shaped around an organizational paradigm or an industry’s or profession’s assumed characteristics may be a workplace that keeps people in formal boxes and significantly hinders the health and viability of that organization. A workplace that is designed with deep consideration of the organization’s work, both within and beyond the organization’s perimeter, seems to nurture high levels of engagement, activating autonomous initiatives, speeding project development and enabling the growth of industry-leading organizations.
It is the work that people do that ought to define how their workspace is shaped.
In the examples I cited, and the many more than you already know, people in a very large number of companies and other types of organizations come to work on tough problems together, requiring team focus and interaction over an extended period of time. There is very little in the current “vocabulary” of the office the supports that kind of work.
We need a Fifth Place.
I don’t think The Fifth Place is a specific setting. Designing buildings, or health plans, or new sciences, or cars, or consumer products, or apps, or whatever. Each of these cultures and its companies may have or seek its own differentiating modes of work. What is important, though, is to have a way of thinking and talking about work and the workplace that uses a different lexicon of planning and form.
Our New Technical Workplace model offers a framework, of sorts, to begin thinking about a Fifth Place. It has five subjects to consider in shaping the workplace – Projects, Products, Presence, Proximity and Platform.
Projects – Most of the value developed and delivered in companies evolves from project work. Questions are formed around customer and consumer needs that may generate ideas for new products, processes, improvement initiatives, transformation objectives, and more. Those questions are resolved in projects that typically cross functional or departmental lines and take time to evolve. When designing the next workspace, consider taking people out of departmental settings. Consider organizing the workplace instead around those projects, which is to say, around teams.
Products – Loosely define “products” to include not just physical properties, but also apps, plans, toolsets, promotions, etc. Then consider all of the ways that these products are visualized in the course of their development. Then consider what artifacts, tools, technologies and other attributes those project spaces ought to have to make those products tangible, visible, and usable in all of the stages of their development.
Presence – I think we’ve already demonstrated that getting all of the people with different talents together in the room is a good idea. But who else should be present? Should the customer have an ongoing presence in the workspace, either actually or virtually, either in interaction with the product or as a persona informing and inspiring it? Should suppliers, vendors, consultants and others have a presence in the team’s project workspace? How do the members of the team in other geographies gain a presence in the space?
Proximity – A project starts with a couple of people who have an idea. Pretty soon others are recruited or attracted to it. As the idea develops and moves toward production, many others from other disciplines join the team. When they are together, proximate to each other, there is a spirit in the space, ideas flow, sticky knowledge is loosened, people are mutually supportive in pursuit of a shared goal. This just doesn’t happen when people sit in different places. Consider the ways that project teams can find a bit of elbow room to expand and contract as their project develops and is launched.
Platform – We have all read the heroic stories of the garages and skunkworks of innovation. Those stories are all about heroism, typically, and the quest to overcome odds and poor resources to yet achieve great things. But is that struggle really an essential ingredient to innovation? Why artificially constrain a team? While struggling, will another team in another place with better resources beat your team to market? Why not give them a platform that is rich with resources, enabling them to draw from them or apply them as they feel the need? Will things develop faster and more effectively?
The Fifth Place.
We are finding that if these are the considerations of organizations working on tough problems, a new kind of workspace begins to evolve. The old language of offices and cubes and conference rooms disappears. The old metrics of standards and guidelines loses value. Instead, a flexible and agile space, rich with the visual evidence of creation, and crackling with energy evolves.