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How and When to Make Collaboration Happen

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...

We instinctively make group decisions through consensus, compromise, and following the most confident person.

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.

Collaborative decisions can be better than individual decisions.

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.

Collaboration can produce many psychological benefits for work performance & culture

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 in groups can also heighten the skills of lesser-skilled people (who learn from more-skilled peers via social comparison)2,3,5.

Poor collaboration is worse than no collaboration (for decision making).

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.

The key factor in effective group decision-making is information sharing.

Groups are 'smarter' than even the best individuals when they are able to draw out a lot of different perspectives, and treat them all as pieces of evidence to inform the collaborative decision6,8.

To facilitate information sharing, research recommends two things:

  1. At the onset of any collaborative decision-making session, frame it as a chance to make an evidence-based decision.
  2. Add a little structure to collaboration to make sure everybody gets a chance to voice their opinion, and to encourage the group to consider all opinions.

Workspace design can facilitate or hinder collaboration frequency.

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.

Make wayfinding easy with clear paths, signs, and aligned floor plans.

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.

Temperature and noise affect risk-taking behaviors in group decision-making.

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.

The primary factor in perceived support for collaboration is the distance between an individual's workstation and any shared space.

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.


  1. Appel-Meulenbroek, R., de Vries, B., & Weggeman, M. (2017). Knowledge sharing behavior: The role of spatial design in buildings. Environment and Behavior, 49(8), 874–903.
  2. Charness, G., Karni, E., & Levin, D. (2006). Individual and Group Decision Making Under Risk: An Experimental Study of Bayesian Updating and Violations of First-Order Stochastic Dominance (SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 932252). Social Science Research Network.
  3. Curşeu, P. L., Meslec, N., Pluut, H., & Lucas, G. J. M. (2015). Cognitive synergy in groups and group-to-individual transfer of decision-making competencies. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.
  4. Esser, J. K. (1998). Alive and well after 25 years: A review of groupthink research. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2–3), 116–141.
  5. Gaver, W. W. (1992). The affordances of media spaces for collaboration. Proceedings of the 1992 ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work - CSCW ’92, 17–24.
  6. Hauer, K. E., Cate, O. ten, Boscardin, C. K., Iobst, W., Holmboe, E. S., Chesluk, B., Baron, R. B., & O’Sullivan, P. S. (2016). Ensuring Resident Competence: A narrative review of the literature on group decision making to inform the work of clinical competency committees. Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 8(2), 156–164.
  7. Hua, Y., Loftness, V., Heerwagen, J. H., & Powell, K. M. (2011). Relationship between workplace spatial settings and occupant-perceived support for collaboration. Environment and Behavior, 43(6), 807–826.
  8. Kinnear, J., Wilson, N., & O’Dwyer, A. (2018). Evaluating team decision-making as an emergent phenomenon. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 94(1110), 216–219.
  9. Kocher, M. G., & Sutter, M. (2005). The decision maker matters: Individual versus group behaviour in experimental beauty‐contest games. The Economic Journal, 115(500), 200–223.
  10. McIntosh, A. R., & Jadavji, N. M. (2017). Application of Neuroscience Principles for Evidence-based Design in Architectural Education. Journal of Young Investigators.
  11. Michaelsen, L. K., Watson, W. E., & Black, R. H. (1989). A realistic test of individual versus group consensus decision making. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74(5), 834–839.
  12. Strandburg-Peshkin, A., Farine, D. R., Couzin, I. D., & Crofoot, M. C. (2015). Shared decision-making drives collective movement in wild baboons. Science, 348(6241), 1358–1361.
  13. Syndicus, M., Wiese, B. S., & van Treeck, C. (2018). In the heat and noise of the moment: Effects on risky decision making. Environment and Behavior, 50(1), 3–27.
  14. Werner, S., & Schindler, L. E. (2004). The role of spatial reference frames in architecture: Misalignment impairs way-finding performance. Environment and Behavior, 36(4), 461–482.
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