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  • Writer's picturesabina strachan

What kind of space is going to help us collaborate?

Cartoon: person speaking to three colleagues and pointing at new bean bags “Now we’ve got bean bags – let’s collaborate!”

The idea of a ‘collaborative’ workspace or learning environment is not new. And we no longer need to be in a single physical space to come together to learn or work collaboratively. So, the way our environment is set up can help foster collaboration. This blog describes four key components that help create this kind of physical or virtual space.

First, some important caveats...

On their own, collaborative environments don’t lead to effective collaboration. Collaborative culture comes first.

A collaborative environment can support a collaborative culture but it can’t ‘create’ it. Changing the culture involves personal / organisational development, breaking down systems, living collaborative values and rewarding collaborative behaviour.

Reducing operational costs is often a driver of capital investment in our working and learning spaces. But ‘rationalising’ doesn’t automatically create collaborative spaces. However, if your main objective is to support a collaborative culture, the resultant environment is likely to be more effective.

Although challenging, it is possible to collaborate without the benefit of a collaborative environment and even without the support of a collaborative culture. If a collaborative approach is the best way to achieve a specific shared outcome, then these barriers can be overcome. But why not make it easier for ourselves and others?

So, what makes a collaborative environment?

1. A measured response. Before coming up with a plan for change, start by thinking about the goals, issues and opportunities specific to your workplace or learning space. Is a collaborative approach right for these? If so, who for, how often, to achieve what? Do pockets of collaborative behaviour already exist? What are the barriers to this becoming mainstream? Which barriers relate specifically to the physical or virtual spaces? Let this new understanding define how much should change, where and when.

2. There is no one-size-fits-all, but it’s worth remembering that wholesale change isn’t always necessary. For example, simple reconfiguration of a meeting space, sorting out known IT glitches, and protecting time for people to come together to work collaboratively can go a long way to developing collaborative culture.

3. Don’t default to open plan. On their own, open plan spaces are not collaborative places. A variety of spaces and ability to change layouts easily is more likely to facilitate working collaboratively. Collaborative working isn’t necessarily an approach that is suited to all situations all the time. But spaces that enable variety and communality are also going to support other positive cultures too, like cooperation and improvement.

4. Collaboration needs diversity. So, make your spaces enable people to work easily with others from outside your organisation, academy or usual grouping. It’s important to look outwardly; think about what would help you collaborate with others and what’s going to make it easy – and desirable – for them to collaborate with you. For example, this could affect how you signpost, how your reception area functions, and how open your firewall is so that you can easily interface with other virtual environments.

Above all else, a collaborative environment should make collaboration easy, not throw up new barriers, complex systems or processes. It’s about having flexible spaces and accessible tools. It doesn’t have to be for everything all the time and it doesn’t have to be expensive. But the environment needs to work, it needs to be supportive and it needs to be valued as an important asset that underpins collaborative culture.

The next blog looks again collaborative culture, this time from the perspective of leadership. We often say we want collaborative culture, and we’ve often tried to create it but failed. What does it take to change a culture into a collaborative one? That’s the million dollar question tackled in the next blog!

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