Blog Post

The Science of Designing an Office for Collaboration

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article was originally published under Jeff Miller’s column "The Science of Workplace Motivation" on

Like many companies today, my company has an open office structure. While I come into work to the same desk every day, I rarely spend every day sitting at it. Instead, I hold meetings at our communal tables, draft presentations in a booth on the fourth floor, and take phone calls while pacing on the patio (yes, year-round -- we're in Santa Monica, after all).

I love the flexibility of these options, and it's a stark contrast to other office layouts I've experienced in the past -- such as a huge corner office that required me to walk across the whole floor just to talk to my teammate, or work from home for a change of scenery. I felt trapped in that office, despite the great view and massive desk. The contrast made me wonder: How do physical spaces influence our ability to not only be productive on our own, but also effectively collaborate with our coworkers?

Steve Jobs was famous for redesigning Pixar's office with collaboration in mind. Rather than separating animators, executives and editors in different buildings, he brought everyone under the same roof -- with the idea that chance encounters would lead to the cross-pollination of ideas. And it worked: John Lasseter, Pixar's former Chief Creative Office said, "I've never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one."

Jobs' decision, which other notable companies like Google soon followed, is supported by social-spatial science. A 2013 study at the University of Michigan found that researchers in the same building are 33 percent more likely to collaborate than coworkers who occupy different buildings, and those on the same floor are 57 percent more likely.

But it's not just proximity that matters -- it's also chemistry. A study from Cornerstone and Harvard Business School found that placing the right type of workers near each other generates a 15 percent increase in performance and up to $1 million in annual profit, while placing toxic employees next to each other increases the probability that one of them will be terminated by 27 percent.

There's a lot to consider to design an ergonomic space. So, when it comes to improving collaboration in your office -- whether it's a single floor or an entire building -- where should you start?

Try these three tips:

1. Define the value of collaboration for your organization.

Don't simply create an open space for collaboration's sake. There are different forms of collaboration that serve different business needs, and each will shape how you approach your space.

For example, if you're a large corporation facing a disconnect between your executives, mid-level managers and entry-level employees, multiple common spaces where employees of all levels can interact may be helpful. If you're a small business whose people often fail to communicate one-on-one, investing in a selection of booths and meeting rooms to improve paired collaboration is a smarter move.

2. Evaluate the needs of different teams in your company.

After considering what kind of collaboration your organization most needs, consider how the layout impacts different departments and teams. For example, placing sales and engineering in close proximity probably isn't the best fit: The sales department needs space to be on calls and host clients, while engineering needs time to concentrate and brainstorm. It might make more sense to place sales with HR, another department in constant communication with prospective employees, and engineering near marketing, a team that requires a similar mix of solo work and collaboration.

3. Make room for solitude.

As seen from the above Cornerstone study on seating charts, simply rearranging a few chairs can have a significant impact on productivity -- pointing to the fact that strong collaboration begins with a motivated individual. As three executives from furniture design firm Steelcase wrote in Harvard Business Review, "People feel a pressing need for more privacy, not only to do heads-down work but to cope with the intensity of how work happens today."

According to their research, the number of people who can't concentrate at their desk has increased by 16 percent since 2008, and the number of those who don't have access to quiet places to do focused work is up by 13 percent. By offering moments of solitude -- quiet rooms, phone booths, pods -- you'll likely find people more refreshed in team settings.

Workplace trends not only change the way we perceive our careers and cultures, they also influence our physical work spaces. The movement away from a 9-to-5 workday and hierarchical structures has meant a move away from cubicles, corner offices and stuffy conference rooms -- and for good reason. The scientific secret of it all is to bring the right people together, while still providing space for "me" to thrive in the "we."

Photo: Creative Commons

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