For Collaboration, Physical Space Matters

In October 2012, University of Michigan researchers found the more scientists had chance encounters with other scientists while walking to their offices, labs, bathrooms or elevators in the same building, the more likely they would collaborate with each other. For every 100 feet of “zonal overlap” between the scientists’ walking patterns, researchers found collaboration increased about 17 percent.

Technology can expedite physical collaboration, but software may not be able to identify people who don’t already know they need to collaborate, said Jason Owen-Smith, one of the study’s researchers. “That’s where serendipitous collaboration sparked by routine, face-to-face interactions can make a difference,” he said.

Human resource leaders are increasingly getting involved in workspace design, as more firms become interested in creating space that supports how people create. “It can’t just be about square footage efficiency,” said Chris Coldoff, a principal and workplace practice area leader for the southwest region at architecture firm Gensler.

“Designing office space is about optimizing how individuals work and how people meet to collaborate, and socializing is a really important aspect as well,” Coldoff said.

But space designed entirely for collaboration is not entirely optimal — people need to have a private workspace to complete tasks. That’s where collaboration technologies come into play. “It’s really important to align the space with the technology for collaboration to happen,” Coldoff said.