Collaborative Environments: the Design Process

Oct. 27, 2015

With collaborative work and learning taking place beyond the office, healthcare and education interiors must follow suit

We are currently living in an era that has been called the “Age of Transformation,” a moment in history that marks a fundamental transition to the fully global, more sustainable world of the 21st Century. This transition impacts how, when, and where companies do business. As such, companies are shifting to collaborative cultures, utilizing resources in entirely new ways to improve efficiency and stay nimble. Best-selling author Daniel Burrus, a self-proclaimed “Innovation Expert & Global Futurist,” says we’ve hit a turning point in which our jobs are no longer changing; rather they’re transforming1. As a result, we must modernize the way we approach process, not change the process itself.

This imposes a cultural shift that has created a ripple effect beyond the corporate office environment, where the trend toward open and collaborative workspaces has already taken root. Specifically, the healthcare and education markets have followed suit and embraced a more collaborative approach to both work processes and facility design. Designers who can effectively translate the programmatic requirements of collaborative work modes into physical spaces will be well-positioned to help their clients transition smoothly into this new workplace paradigm.

a prescription for healthcare: balancing needs
While collaboration has been hailed as a kind of magic bullet for improving workplace efficiency in the corporate sector, it’s important to note that effective workplace environments are never one-dimensional. They are often complex spaces that require a careful balancing act between different types and modes of work. According to Gensler’s 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey (WPS)2, the most effective, productive workplaces are those that balance focus and collaboration, providing employees with space to work intensely on individual tasks, and to gather with colleagues to brainstorm and work together.

As the Gensler study concluded, “Our survey findings demonstrate that focus and collaboration are complementary work modes. One cannot be sacrificed in the workplace without directly impacting the other. We know that both focus and collaboration are crucial to the success of any organization in today’s economy”4.

Perhaps nowhere are these corresponding work requirements needed more than in the healthcare industry, which is undergoing transformation on an unprecedented scale. Not only do medical facilities need to balance individual workspaces and areas built for collaboration, but they also must protect patient privacy to meet Health Insurance Portability and Information Act (HIPPA) requirements. Spaces that are designed with flexibility in mind can help them meet these often competing requirements.

As a result, many healthcare providers today—whether retrofitting or building from scratch—plan around a central communication center, where work areas are open to any employee, regardless of the level or specialty. Exam rooms are placed around the periphery creating easy access back and forth from the common work area and can easily be transformed for other uses when medical assistants wheel in carts, for example. Private meeting spaces can also be placed along the periphery of the facility—areas that are not dedicated workspaces or rooms set up for specific patient needs. Rather, they are flex rooms—or “hot desking” spaces—that can be used if a doctor needs privacy to counsel a family, or if staff members need to make private phone calls, for example.

In addition to the common work spaces, surveys reveal that healthcare employees at all levels now prefer shared lounge areas as well. In the past, healthcare facilities featured separate dining and relaxing areas for doctors, nurses, and other staff. But regardless of specialty or title, medical staff members today prefer a shared space that feels more like a restaurant or lounge so they can mingle.

Flexible spaces even extend beyond staff areas for many healthcare facilities as they continually work to improve the patient experience—a key element of the Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) in which hospitals are reimbursed based on patient satisfaction rather than services rendered3. For example, some children’s hospitals no longer provide treatment in the patient rooms and instead designate them as “safe havens,” where patients can rest and relax with family where they’re shielded from the stress of their medical concerns. Small office areas outside of patient rooms can be flexible enough to give shots, take tests, and more importantly, allow patients to remove themselves from treatments when they go back to their personal spaces.

Healthcare administrators are finding that patients thrive in these communal spaces, and oftentimes, they don’t want to be in private rooms (contrary to popular belief). Cancer patients, for example, want to have the ability to converse with each other, learn from each other, and support each other. They don’t want to be isolated. And healthcare providers are finding that these collaborative spaces also enhance healing.

Beyond the clinical setting, another reason the shift to collaborative work and space design has made its way into the healthcare market is due to the desires and expectations of the next generation of medical workers. As Millennials are applying for open positions, many of them are asking potential employers about how they collaborate, what the workspaces look like, and what types of technology the workspaces feature.

Millennials—the future of our workforce—expect this type of workplace environment because they are non-linear thinkers, and they are accustomed to keeping constant connectivity to their social circles. The members of this generation are keenly aware of what their friends are doing and thinking at any moment, and are able to instantly receive feedback on their own activities and more through social media. Working in an environment that isn’t collaborative would be foreign to them, and healthcare providers are increasingly catering to the needs of this emerging, highly collaborative labor force.


education: peer-to-peer learning

Like healthcare providers, educational institutions are also being forced to do more with less, including packing more students into existing spaces. Further, today’s students come to the learning environment with far different expectations and needs than those of generations past. Within these confines comes great opportunity for collaboration.

In a mostly bygone era, an instructor would stand at the head of the class and lecture to students seated in fixed rows at their desks facing forward. Now, students are increasingly learning from group projects—from kinetic activities that impact the physical space. As such, classrooms can have different purposes throughout the day and are being designed around collaborative learning or social activities taking place within them rather than a rigid pedagogical format—which is referred to as “hacking” a learning space.

In fact, a white paper by the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative4 revealed that the classroom of the future should embody several key characteristics, including:

  • Designed around people (keeps end user in mind)
  • Supports multiple types of learning activities (night programs, for example)
  • Enables connections inside and outside (fluid for collaboration)
  • Makes space flexible (easy transition from lecture to group work)
  • Accommodates information technology (power and connectivity are readily available)
  • Designed for comfort, safety, and functionality (ample space and security are key)

For example, a square classroom with tables placed diagonally around the corners enables the teacher at the center to engage all students, which eliminates the hierarchy in the classroom and establishes a more egalitarian, peer-to-peer approach. Students are no longer able to hide in the back of the class and avoid a teacher’s eye contact. Everyone is plugged in, everyone is involved, and everyone is able to see what’s going on.

While smartboards are common in many classrooms today, schools no longer need to shoulder as much of the burden of providing technology for students, as most bring their own devices to class. A primary design feature educators require now more than ever is providing enough power outlets for each student to be able to plug in their electronic devices. As a result, many schools are looking for furniture solutions that feature built-in power strips and data ports for easy accessibility.

As one might imagine, libraries have also experienced drastic changes from those of past eras. While many might still envision college libraries as dark, quiet places that don’t allow for food or much conversation, both K-12 schools and universities are now creating more casual atmospheres to foster collaboration. Decisions such as removing the typical large oak tables and incorporating more lounge seating, paring down the numerous standalone computers, and allowing—even encouraging—food and drinks, are far more common in educational facilities.

Collaborative Workspace Terms

ACTIVE DISENGAGEMENT—Disengaged employees who undermine their jobs and employers.

ACTIVITY-BASED WORKING—Premise that no employee “owns” or has an assigned workstation, providing designated areas for specific tasks.

CO-WORKING—Style of work that involves a shared working environment (often an office) for workers not employed by the same organization.

CROSS-POLLINATION—Bringing together employees from various office segments, allowing their knowledge and skills to influence each other.

FLIPPED CLASSROOM—Form of blended learning in which students learn new content after hours often by watching video lectures and spending classroom time doing (what used to be) homework with assistance from and interaction with teachers and peers.

HACKING—Modifying or changing something in an extraordinary or personalized way.

HOT-DESKING—Workspace organization system which involves multiple workers using a single physical workstation or surface during different time periods.

INCUBATOR—A co-working space that fosters collaboration and typically targets socially minded businesses and entrepreneurs.

NOMADS—Workers who are not bound to a fixed work space.

SYMBIOSIS—Interdependent relationships between employees in different company segments.

TOUCHDOWN SPACES—Sparsely decorated area for remote workers who plug in and work for a brief period of time.

The Discovery Process

When designing a truly collaborative space, the design team and key stakeholders should take part in a discovery process that is an exercise in co-learning to discover how people work together and how the space can best serve the functions of end users. The following three steps are important to keep in mind during the discovery process:

1. Involve all stakeholders in focus groups. For example, in a healthcare environment, this would include doctors, physician assistants, nurses, administrators, schedulers, pharmacists, patients, families, volunteers, facility maintenance, and more. A true cross-section of the team is required to get to the heart of how a space is used. Talk about floor plans, workstation sizes, traffic flow, and what works and what doesn’t—even down to grievances about having to bend over too often to plug something into a socket. But because so many different people are involved, it’s also important that the process and timeline is clearly described at the onset of the project so that everyone has the same expectations. Everyone knows what they need to accomplish, by when and how their input is needed, and how the ideas will be considered and incorporated into the final space. Otherwise, the risk of constant changes and updates and tweaks—with no final design at the end—is too high.

2. Conduct visioning sessions. Members of the group are asked questions about the use of a space. Some design firms post images on an idea wall, for example, that gives collaboration an equal voice. It creates dialogue and generates ideas. Then each participant is given play money to represent the budget for a project, and they have to figure out how much of their money they would invest in various ideas on the wall.

3. Real-world simulation. A senior director overseeing the oncology services at University of California Irvine Healthcare consulted with another hospital that had recently undergone a similar renovation. They involved all stakeholders in a discovery activity that spanned two weekends. They designed each room with cardboard and then acted out the workflow with participants. They were able to see (before investing a dime in renovation) exactly how the exam rooms might work, how the flow was through common spaces, etc.

Through these type of activities during the discovery process, it becomes clear how spaces can and should be used, what the current challenges are, what needs to be considered, what the priorities are for the stakeholders, how to get buy in from all involved, and additional ways to use spaces.

Further, today’s students are no longer tethered to libraries for group study, as coffee shops on college campuses are also becoming an increasingly popular option. Universities are turning common spaces into hip, café-like environments with lounge seating that can easily be moved around to accommodate groups of varying sizes. As a result, when a space looks more like a collaborative area at a local Starbucks, and students are treated more like adults in a space, they are more likely to act like adults. When educators are able to create spaces that foster learning and collaborating with peers, students tend to rise to the occasion.

the co-learning formula
As the trend toward collaborative working and learning environments continues, design teams need to think strategically about how the space will be utilized and adopt a new process that invites not only dialogue among stakeholders, but a collaborative process as well. When designing workspaces in the past, designers used to begin with a simple mathematical formula: divide the total square footage by the number of employees to determine the square footage of each workspace at each level or job function. But in order to design an area that fosters collaboration, space planners must determine how people work and what amount of space can be unassigned before they can customize the space for how a particular group works.

It becomes a co-learning process for architects, designers, and a project’s numerous stakeholders. It is, in fact, a collaborative process to conceive of a functional collaborative space. It can be a difficult process for some, as this removes the idea of one single person—such as the designer or architect—being the expert during collaboration. It’s a co-learning process during which all sides may need to concede a bit of control and be open to seeing new ideas that come from a discovery process (see related sidebar).

So how do you take all of these findings and create a space that will work with any budget or timeline (whether they’re quick fixes to retrofit or large-scale rebuilds) and provide solutions that work today and provide the flexibility for years to come? Here are a few strategies that can help in the process:

  • Leverage technology. Wi-Fi and mobile technology allow employees to move around and work anywhere in a building. They can have impromptu meetings instead of being tethered to a desk or conference table. Make sure that workspaces are flexible enough to accommodate technology that doesn’t even yet exist.
  • Design for durability and flexibility. When selecting furniture, materials, or flooring for example, find those that provide durability and flexibility. Furniture should be comfortable but light, allowing anyone to move them at any time. Hard casters allow for easier transport without scratching up floors. Certain flooring is better suited to control sound in open areas, and flooring designs can help define spaces, creating visual cues for walkways and small gathering areas.
  • Tailored spaces. Offer a variety of spaces fit to the end user. For a collaborative space to be successful, people should have options so they feel empowered to make decisions on how they want to work. Some activities may be better suited for open, collaborative areas, and other tasks may require quiet and privacy.
  • Don’t overlook the forest for the trees, i.e, consider how all of the individual areas work together as part of the bigger picture. Make sure collaborative areas don’t interrupt the nearby private spaces, for example, but also don’t place private spaces so far away that employees won’t make the walk to use them as they’re intended.
  • Think outside the box. Kaiser Permanente takes a true community stance for its facilities by holding book fairs at the facility entrances and hosting community meetings and events—such as Alcoholics Anonymous, weight loss programs, and yoga—in their meeting spaces that enhance their wellness message.

It should be made clear that collaborative workspaces can’t simply be designed while expecting a company, healthcare, or educational facility’s culture to follow suit. As Seth Kahan, principal and founder of consulting firm Visionary Leadership, explains, “You can’t force collaboration. It must be entirely voluntary. You have to set up an environment that’s conducive to collaboration and make it easy.” This can be achieved by focusing on employee engagement—from bonuses to benefits and recognition. Empower employees to feel as if they are the “authors of their own destiny.”

Collaboration must be a key part of the organizational culture. Change management has to be an important part of the design process, especially for workers who are shifting from a conventional, all-closed office space into a more open, flexible environment. Make sure to engage all employees to explain the reasons for the new workspace designs and address concerns.

As the spaces where we work, learn, and heal continue to transform, one thing is clear: Collaborative environments are forging the path to creativity, innovation, and opportunity by empowering people and maximizing their potential.

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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