A quiet revolution is happening in the places we work. And this time, the transformation is only partly driven by technology. It’s also a response to a new generation of workers with new ideas about life and work, ready and willing to abandon the conventions that have long governed office life—the 9-to-5 workday, the coat and tie, the once-coveted private office. Change has come and we are just beginning to see what it will look like.
One thing is clear. In the 21st century office, the name of the game is collaboration. And it’s played on a field whose boundaries and forms are flexible and fluid, where the walls that once defined structure and hierarchy have yielded to unmapped territories where people can make connections that lead to innovation.
Collaboration doesn’t necessarily occur as a limited process in a conference room. Rather, it is a more radical work practice that is seeded throughout the organisation and often flourishes where one would least expect. Contrary to common belief, great ideas seldom leap fully formed from the mind of a single “creator,” but begin to crystallise when creative sparks fly between people who share a dream or a problem. That is, when people collaborate. Anecdote- and research-based evidence alike bear this premise out, but how do we create the conditions for collaboration? How do we make it happen?
Collaboration comes easily to younger workers—Gen Y or Millennials, as they prefer to be known. Not so for Baby Boomers who may be uneasy with “design by committee.” Boomers tend to look to strong leadership and a unifying vision—and then dig in to solve the problem on their own—thus avoiding the issue of passing an idea through too many hands and seeing it reappear distorted, diluted or disabled. Boomers tend to equate collaboration withan excess of “cooks” yielding generic results and needless complexity. Today, however, the scales have tipped in favor of collaboration as Millennials enter and transform the workplace. Our purpose here is to chart the terrain of this emerging workplace. We will take a look at collaboration and its value to business, as well as how corporate culture, technology and design can enable or disable productive group work and thus, the ability to co-create a breakthrough concept, a system or product.
None of us is as smart as all of us.- Japanese Proverb
As we researched the nature of collaboration, it became clear that those three elements— culture, technology and design—must be in place and in sync if a truly collaborative environment is to emerge. The culture must be one that encourages open communication across departments and up and down the hierarchy. Technology must be used appropriately—and not take the place of face-to-face interaction. And the workplace itself must be designed to support co-creative workstyles without eliminating privacy or places to work without noise and interruption. We would also do well to remember a fourth element that is critical to the highest level of performance—collaborative work must be balanced with heads-down or focused work. No job is about collaboration alone.There is no one solution, but there are viable strategies for planning those creative collisions and conversations that lead to innovation.