The real story behind “collaborative” workplaces

open plan office design

Open plan office Issue No.1: Not everybody wants to be involved a chair race Photo: via

It is now widely acknowledged that offices of old created barriers to new ideas and getting things done. So today’s offices are designed to promote collaboration, foster communication and increase productivity. Right?

Terms such as “activity based workplaces”, “work anywhere” and “alternative work strategies”  describe these more flexible ways of working. Design that facilitates impromptu discussions is being lauded, but is there too much emphasis on the importance of a collaborative environment? After-all, team work is really only one part of the wheel.

Casual meeting areas are a common design request. In my experience,  it is usually the first step companies take when trying to open up lines of communication and encourage “collaboration” between employees. Meeting tables or casual meeting ares are slotted – often without thought – between workstations. They are meant to encourage employees to slide back their chair for an impromptu meeting with their peers, but many feel that instead of promoting communication it does the opposite.

Tim*, a senior operations manager in a finance company, says the casual meeting areas near his desk can negatively affect his productivity. He says the main impact is a break in “flow” for those people sitting nearby. “The informal behavior that often goes with casual meeting areas – such as laughing at someone’s weekend story – can be a real problem when you are sitting nearby on an important call with a client,” he explains.

That’s the reality of connectivity – it can come at the cost of concentration. Casual meeting areas are great for spontaneous problem solving meetings or crisis round tables. But employers need to seriously address the impact on employees around these areas before they steam ahead.

The rise of the open-plan office has been heralded as the “ground-breaking” solution to fix an unproductive workforce: People will talk to each other, less time will be wasted on emails and phone calls and thus more work will be done. Slam dunk right?

Not so, says Peter*, an engineer in an international firm. He explains while more open work space has made his team more social it has not helped with productivity. In fact, the removal of offices has made the timely delivery of detailed work less attainable.

“With the constant hum of office chit chat, there’s not enough time for people to sit and really think things through in their own head. My boss gave up his office to create a quiet room, but more often than not he is back in there just trying to get through his workload,” says Peter.

Employers need to evaluate the importance of time for individual thought versus team connectivity. Often one is just as important as the other. A common mistake is assuming that one solution will suit every employee and their duties.

“Hotelling” (reservation-based unassigned seating) or “hot desking” ( reservation-less unassigned seating) are the antithesis to the old style of office design. Not only are there no offices, you don’t even have your own desk. Samantha*, a media company employee, recently moved to a hot-desking environment, which she has found challenging. “Firstly, the extra time needed to set up and pack away at a new desk each day cuts is counterproductive, “she explains. “Plus not knowing where colleagues are sitting each day means I waste time finding them.”

Designing a workspace which seemingly encourages collaborative working can be counterproductive: all the casual meeting areas and hot desks in the world are useless if your staff cannot get any work done. Open-plan environments can work, but it is not just the space that needs evaluation. The location, technology and management of that area also requires discussion.  Here are a three things to consider (only a starting point):

Group casual meeting areas together within a larger enclosed space. That way, being loud won’t be a problem and, with multiple spaces, there would always be opportunity for your staff to meet.

Ensure the correct equipment has been installed to allow your staff to plug in and out efficiently if you’re moving to a hot-desking environment. Power points and data outlets above the desk are a “no-brainer”. Laptop holders and additional power points to charge devices promote efficient technology use.  It’s frustrating to have work delayed simply because of computer problems, especially when you didn’t have those problems in the previous office environment.

Provide quiet rooms. Distractions are hard to get away from in the new workplace. Providing ample quiet rooms is essential, but it is how you manage them that is the most important. A booking system will ensure  your quiet rooms don’t become someone’s office.

If you are interested in reading more about office design trends check out our other feature articles here. Go on…



The articles on the Charter Build blog – Officeionado – are written by the CB team and edited by Jane Bright, our Design Director. If you have any questions regarding our content, syndication of our content or content submissions, please contact Jane via email For notification on new blog posts either subscribe (top of sidebar on this page) or follow Charter Build @charterbuild and Jane Bright @1JaneBright.