This is the first post in a new series titled “Spatial Design & Collaboration”. The series will explore the importance of designing physical and mental spaces that enhance collaborative behaviour and encourage innovative output.

“There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.” — Winston Churchill (1924)

We are often unaware of how our immediate environment affects our mannerisms, behaviours and emotions. A dark room implicitly causes us to speak with a softer voice. Having multiple points of light can affect our mood. Oxygen levels affect our alertness. Chairs oriented in circles rather than in rectangles encourage our inclination to collaborate.

The fast-growing trend of designing open-space offices has Fortune 500 companies such as Pixar and Google (and closer to home, McCain Foods’ new King St. W. office in Toronto) tearing down walls and hiring a new generation of interior designers. Research like the University of British Columbia’s study of the positive behavioural changes that result from sitting at a circular table rather than more angular arrangements also have organizations rethinking how to foster productivity, creativity and innovation through workspace design.

“The round table approach may work to foster collaboration for corporate boards […] By contrast, those who sit in an angular arrangement—think Donald Trump’s The Apprentice—display more maverick, self-centered attitudes” (Quartz).

People who work in public and social innovation labs (PSILabs) are often acutely aware of how physical spaces affect people’s behaviours and their willingness to collaborate, as well as how teams share ideas. Much of our work at the MaRS Solutions Lab involves bringing people—including the “unusual suspects”—together to collaboratively generate ideas and implement solutions to complex social challenges. Designing ideal physical spaces that support these conversations is critical to our work. Along the same vein, we are equally aware that our own internal working spaces can support or hinder our team’s creative and innovative output. For the launch of this blog series, I will use the MaRS Solutions Lab’s workspace to bring attention to the very visible effects that a physical space can have on the work environment.

Case Study: MaRS Solutions Lab: Separate cubicles versus a co-working table

A few weeks into starting my role at MaRS Solutions Lab, our director, Joeri van den Steenhoven, tore down the walls of our cubicle spaces and installed a giant shared table where the four grey-walled cubicles used to be. He also installed a giant whiteboard.

Our new co-working table with the whiteboard in the background
Our new co-working table with the whiteboard in the background

I moved into the space in January and can confidently say that the new table has significantly enhanced our team’s communication. Small improvements, like picking up on my teammates’ distinctive behavioural cues and what they mean, have increased my communication with my team. For example, Joeri sits on my left and I have very quickly learned that, when he is slightly overwhelmed by his to-do list, he does a certain hand gesture and brushes his hair a lot. This signals to me that I should only ask him the most pertinent questions and leave the rest for another time.

As for a more drastic and obvious change, one very positive influence of the new table is that it supports an environment of eavesdropping. As with many organizations, each member of our team has specific projects and tasks to complete. Sitting close to our teammates has given us opportunities to listen in on conversations and to feel a sense of ownership of their projects—even when we’re not directly involved. For example, one day Joeri reached out to me to share the news that a partnership agreement we had been working on had just been approved, and we clapped with excitement. Claire Buré (who is pictured in white above) later mentioned that she also felt an energy boost when she heard the news. Even though she was not a part of the conversation, her mere body arrangement—facing us rather than having her back to us, which would have been the case if we were still in our cubicles—gave her, psychologically, a heightened sense of belonging and inclusivity in our conversation.

Another positive outcome of our co-working table is that my teammates and I must constantly walk by each other’s desks in order to get to our own seat, which results in increased communication. Susan Paetkau, who sits to my far left, has stopped by my desk many times to chat and ask questions about articles or artifacts she noticed on my desk. The list of positive outcomes is long and includes a heightened sense of team cohesiveness, the sharing of our personal interests, and a better signaling and understanding of what we are all working on.

But… there are also negative byproducts

With clearer sightlines and constantly within earshot, there are also some negative consequences that come with “forcing” a more intimate working space. A recent New Yorker article by Maria Konnikova about the open-space office trap mentions many of the concerns about creating such a space: increased spread of illness, constant noise and distractions, and impairment to workers’ abilities to focus or recall information. Though the reasoning within the article holds some truth and the author is well informed, I would argue that she has missed the point of how open-space offices function. Aside from building the physical space, you also need to build an ecosystem of supportive structures and also establish a workplace culture for the open-space office to function well. Simply put, you cannot just tear down walls and expect instant collaboration, heightened creativity or innovations to magically appear. You have to engrain a collaborative culture, build flexible meeting spaces, and create a space where people can hide when they need to focus. This is how you design a work environment for the human being.

Simply put, you cannot just tear down walls and expect instant collaboration, heightened creativity or innovations to magically appear

Sitting in a circular arrangement is great for a collaborative team—up to a certain point of busyness. When you want to put your head down and just reply to those 50 emails in your inbox, it can be very distracting if your colleagues who sit two feet away from you are chatting. Headphones are a useful way to put blinders on, but on certain days I find myself yearning for a place to hide.

It’s important to note, however, that a collaborative table—or any open-space design intervention—is not ultimately bad for certain work modes. It may not encourage the best outcomes for specific tasks, but designing interventions to manage any negative byproducts, at least so far, seems to be sufficient.

3 ways to design a successful co-working space

Here are three supportive designs that we have either implemented or are considering implementing to enhance collaborative behavior and encourage innovative output at the Solutions Lab.

Supportive Design No. 1: Build a work-from-home culture

Organizational culture plays just as important a role as the physical space we inhabit. On days when I really need to do intensive work or when I simply can’t stand being in the office anymore (let’s be honest, human beings are not meant to stay statically seated for eight hours per day), I work from home. In fact, working from home is not only supported by my team, it’s encouraged.

For me, working from home means working on my bed with my roommates’ cats by my side or working at one of my favourite coffee shops. It has worked wonderfully for my productivity and overall happiness. I have also noticed that I return to the office more energized, which I believe (though we have not done a study on ourselves just yet) positively influences the mood of my neighbouring colleagues.

A fascinating study by Howard Friedman and Ronald Riggio dating from 1981 has shown that “even completely nonverbal expressiveness can affect other people. For example, when three strangers sit facing one other in silence for a minute or two, the most emotionally expressive of the three transmits his or her mood to the other two—without a single word being spoken.” The study is also a good reflective point for thinking critically about Jan Pejtersen’s recent study on the increase of sick leave when workers work closer together, as cited in Konnikova’s piece in The New Yorker. Good vibes can spread just as easily as disease—and when you have a positive culture of working from home, why would you go to work if you’re feeling unwell?

Supportive Design No. 2: Build systems that signal your availability to chat or what you’re doing that day

We’re all busy. One critical thing that our shared busyness hinders is communicating with one another. The whiteboard that Joeri implemented led to my idea to write down what each team member is working on in order to better communicate what each of us is doing, whether we might need a supportive hand or whether we should be left alone. However, just as we must build a culture of trust to allow people to work from home, I’ve found that we also need to build a culture around consistently updating that board. This is on my to-do list.


Supportive Design No. 3 (in the works): Build spaces to hide

Taking breaks to stretch, space out or meditate positively impacts my productivity and creative output. However, with a circular table, it makes doing these activities a challenge. I have laid down on the floor a few times to take a power nap, which has worked well, but it’s not every day that you want your boss or colleagues to see you sleeping.

I admire Arianna Huffington’s intentional placement of nap rooms in The Huffington Post offices and how in the Oprah Winfrey Network offices bells are rung throughout the day to encourage employees to take a break or to meditate. We have structured our educational and organizational institutions without thinking critically about what our bodies and minds really need in order to be creative and collaborative. Research is starting to show that insights and ideas come to us when our brains are most relaxed. This is why you may have had your best ideas in the shower.

Though I haven’t given it too much thought, I still haven’t found a way to build this space within MaRS just yet. However, I have noticed that walking up the stairs rejuvenates me, eating away from my desk refreshes my ideas and biking to work positively impacts my mood.

CSI Nap Room
Nap Room at the Centre for Social Innovation Regent Park, Toronto

The next post (August) will feature my visit to the poster child of collaborative physical space, Stanford University’s