We know the problems of workplaces that make it hard to collaborate, and the problems of open plans that make it nearly impossible to escape "collaboration." How can we get centered on when, how, and where to make collaboration happen? Here's what the research says...
Wild baboons have been observed making 'collaborative' decisions about which direction the troop should head to find new food/resources. If two different baboons stand up and initiate a move in different new directions, the other baboons in the troop will first try to pick a middle direction between the two 'idea initiators.' If the two proposed directions are too disparate, the troop will look for a consensus among the baboons who stand up first, and pile-on that direction (snowballing consensus). If they are unable to follow a consensus, the troop will follow the initiating baboon who seems the most confident (regardless of gender or status within the troop)12.
Groups make better decisions (versus the best individual) when a decision involves learning, drawing from several resources/perspectives (e.g., brainstorming), or avoiding errors.
The power of group decisions amplifies when the group is intellectually diverse, but only if the group is good at drawing out everyone's opinions and deliberating on them. Then, the group's diversity of ideas adds an edge over individual problem-solving ability.
Groups also routinely outperform the average individual at decision-making because groups are better at filtering out 'obviously wrong' answers and finding middle ground. However, this tendency can also cut out minority voices that may have the best solution (see below)6,8,9,11.
The act of cooperating with coworkers towards a goal has several psychological benefits.
Group work helps people mutually "contaminate" each other's thoughts. This builds transactive memory (e.g., "Oh, I didn't know Dave had math skills."), and helps create shared mental models (i.e., common understanding that allows group members to fill-in gaps about shared issues).
Collaborating on a decision (vs. trying to solve it individually) can invite bias and groupthink into the decision making process. Useful minority voices can be drowned out as the majority comes to its own consensus. People can get defensive of positions, triggering others to acquiesce out of agreeableness. Hierarchy can corrupt the decision process. Ultimately, poor collaboration invites process loss, which means that the resulting decision is worse than the best group member would have made on his/her own4,6.
To facilitate information sharing, research recommends two things:
Many productive collaborations are spontaneous, not planned.
Removing barriers (physical and cultural) and getting out of the way of accidental/spontaneous meetings is important. So is creating places where people are likely to "bump into" one another.
Sight lines, shared high-traffic pathways, destination spaces, opportunities for overhearing, and informal gathering areas can all potentially increase impromptu collaborations that are meaningful to the organization's purpose. You can facilitate spontaneous meetings by providing both visibility (of other people) and some opportunity for overhearing1,7.
Our brains have internal 'wayfinding' structures called place cells. These cells in the hippocampus store memories of spaces according to how spatially or psychologically close we perceive two spaces to be.
Building architecture and signs can facilitate our ability to develop an orienting brain map. Clear lines of sight to workspace areas increase the likelihood that people will locate and use those areas.
Especially, aligned floor plans with right-angle corners can lead to faster wayfinding. In contrast, misaligned floorplans create more error --- and create a frustrating experience using the space (see image above)10,14.
Hotter temperatures tend to increase risk-taking in groups; this may be useful if you desire risk-taking (as in an R&D lab), but in general it is likely best to keep collaboration spaces at a comfortable temperature (or at least, not excessively hot).
Neutral background noise (e.g., music, people typing) doesn't seem to affect risk taking, but noise composed of human voices decreases risk-taking behavior. Thus, some isolation from noise for collaboration spaces tempers risk-taking, minimizes distraction, and helps collaborators feel free to talk without disturbing others7,13.
Nearby collaboration spaces enhance perceptions of support for collaboration. Various arrangements can minimize the average distance between workstations and meeting spaces (e.g., place meeting spaces either distributed __throughout the floor plan core, or at each corner).
People in workplace designs with these floor plan styles report higher perceived support for collaboration, and lower distraction.
Additionally, dedicating a greater percentage of space to collaboration communicates support for collaboration13.