Chapter 4. Make Space

Working closely together means just that—getting close. As we’ve discussed in previous chapters, when we bring a variety of people together, we need to think about who we will invite and how we will operate. But just as important is the actual space in which we collaborate. In this chapter we look at the idea of using “space,” both physical and virtual, in a collaboration to support the team. For many offices, collaborative work is very different than what typically goes on, so you should be intentional about making space work for you and your team members.

While many teams must and do work together remotely (i.e., in distributed locations), many people believe there’s really no substitute for being in the same room, though I’ve certainly run into people who feel that remote working is as good as, if not better than, being colocated. On a Freakonomics podcast about Harvard’s study of open plan offices, Janet Pogue McLaurin, an expert in global workspaces, says that studies show that up to 50% of our work is actually heads-down focused time, with 25% of our time being spent face-to-face, and the rest being virtual. She says that all of this points to the need for teams to have some choice about their spaces, to allow for both quality time with colleagues and space to think and work. Many find that being colocated allows for “spontaneous collaboration,” where people encounter each other and share information organically. Whether you work in the same space and time or are distributed, though, there are ways you can help your teams by structuring the “places” where work happens.

Working with Physical Space

Jorge Arango, an information architect, says the spaces in which he works with collaborators need to be crafted, rather than taken for granted. He tries, whenever possible, to get teams out of their day-to-day buildings into new settings that don’t hold unseen agendas and pet ideas. He says, “The space becomes the canvas for ideas; the room itself becomes the artifact” that the whole group has created and knows inside out. “Notes need to live on walls, not trapped in notebooks, to become useful,” he finds. “Space needs to help people escape the ‘tyranny of spoken language’ where a third way between competing ideas can emerge.”

It’s not just about exposing notes and ideas, though. Arango finds that people develop a spatial memory of where ideas and assumptions are in a room. And this isn’t accidental. Arango constantly grooms the space to organize the ideas that are generated and synthesized within it. While the space itself can’t serve as the true end artifact, it can be powerful during the period where a focused, dedicated team is working through unresolved issues.

Physical spaces shouldn’t be kept too groomed, however. The adage about a messy desk signaling a brilliant mind may actually have some truth to it, at least where collaborations are concerned. Teams that have their own space to keep things visible and mutable for a period of time are better able to keep their minds and options open, because they can see raw data such as customer quotes or brainstormed concepts side-by-side, which helps them think laterally. Thinking laterally means that they aren’t trying to derive the answer analytically, but instead are more open to ideas and co-creation.

If possible, getting a space set up for a few weeks (or whatever duration your team is exploring and selecting solutions) can be very helpful. This allows the team to have a safe space to work together that they come to know well.

Leaders can also benefit from having access to teams in their space and relating to them in person. Tom Chi, formerly of GoogleX, describes how he changed up his office seating as a manager at Yahoo, where typically management sat together, away from their employees. Instead, his office was ringed by rows of developers and designers whose skills he could tap with little effort. When he ran into a challenge that he wanted to develop solutions for, he could call out to the group to see who was available and quickly assemble a team to prototype approaches. Catherine Courage, a VP of Ads and Payments at Google, manages a huge group that is distributed worldwide. She makes a point to visit teams a few times a year because it’s so valuable to have a less formal, unscheduled period to interact.

Too Much Togetherness

When “collaboration” is constant, it’s probably not actually happening. Often companies will throw everyone into an open floor plan and watch as they retreat into sending emails to just keep their heads clear. Space isn’t all about the big group working face-to-face, it’s also getting time to focus on your own. In Harvard’s study of open office plans, researcher Ethan Bernstein found that when space is too open it negatively affects productivity, as people seek to have some sense of privacy and time to focus. The secret to helping groups collaborate is to allow for them to come together in a safe, familiar area where everyone can see the evolution of the group’s work over time. But it also involves letting people retreat back to their own working space regularly to do “work,” whether that’s administrative tasks or working heads-down on the team’s ideas to flesh them out or capture details to share with others in the future.

It is extremely helpful to have a regular schedule and cadence to using the shared space. At two consultancies I’ve worked for, Cooper and frog design, teams would often spend the morning together, when everyone is fresh, to work through their ideas for a few hours. Then, afternoons were dedicated to working solo or in smaller pairs on more tactical items. Make sure not only that teams get their focus time, but also that it’s predictable and understood, perhaps enshrined in team norms, so that your colleagues don’t get antsy.

Working with Virtual Spaces

Remote working is a controversial topic among the experts I spoke with. Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom ran a two-year study that found remote work could actually boost productivity by reducing commute times and allowing people to have time to focus, not to mention saving money on office space. But another study, by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, found that remote workers felt “left out” when they weren’t close to the action. What appears to be a common thread is that when people aren’t colocated, it takes attention to make sure they’re connecting in unstructured and spontaneous ways—which they can do by using tools well. The Stanford study also found that not everyone enjoyed the experience of working remotely. Supporting people’s preferences around where to work, if possible, can help.

There is also debate over, and individual preferences for, synchronous versus asynchronous communication through tools like video calls and shared documents. Matt LeMay, author of Agile for Everybody (O’Reilly), described using shared documents as especially challenging. “Asynchronous communication is ruining everything,” he told me. But, at the same time, you can’t take colocation and synchronous communication for granted. And, as LeMay points out, being colocated doesn’t guarantee high-quality synchronous communication, either.

John Maeda, on the other hand, says even when teams are face-to-face, relying on asynchronous commenting on a shared document is preferable. He’s in the camp that believes that when people are remote, you should capitalize on their ability to take in and provide information on their own time. As we saw in earlier chapters, not everyone likes and is good at the intense face-to-face discussions where decisions get hashed out. By using virtual tools, you may get a higher-quality discussion from the group.

Remote work does appear to be a growing trend. As we make products and services that help users worldwide access information and benefits 24/7 and on the go, employees have begun to demand the same flexibility for themselves. Whether it’s helping working parents time-shift work to allow for child care, or supporting those who prefer to skip a long commute in favor of working at home, or international teams working on an objective, we can and should have ways to adapt our collaborative work. Given the divergence in opinions about working synchronously versus asynchronously, it may be worth doing a specific test of each approach and letting the group determine what works best for them.

Virtual Spaces Aren’t Just for Distributed Teams

Even if a team is colocated for much of the time, there are also limitations to actually working together synchronously. Especially for those whose calendars are overloaded, finding the time and space to meet face-to-face can become a real impediment to teamwork. Virtual spaces are great for supporting those who are separated not just by place, but also by time.

Being able to maximize the real-time interactions that a team has is key, says Vanessa Cho of Google Ventures. In her former role leading a team of 200 people across seven locations working on Google apps like Calendar, Gmail, and Drive, she found herself needing to collapse time and space in impossible ways to bring everyone together. She and her team eventually found ways to work within the limits of the laws of physics, using the very tools they were working on.

Certainly the tools we have to support remote collaboration have improved over the years. From the ability to edit documents together in real time, to Slack, to conference calls with video components, a great deal of what a team needs is accessible when people aren’t colocated.

But we’ve all cursed the seemingly required 10 minutes of battling the dial-in system at the beginning of a meeting and wished we could all just get together and hash things out in person. Given the boon that supporting remote work is to teams, it’s worth spending the time and energy to get your virtual space game on point.

Troubleshooting (Physical and Virtual) Space Issues

There are steps you can take to create spaces that support collaboration. This section provides suggestions about how to get physical and virtual spaces working for you and the team.

No Consistent Space Available

In every office setting I’ve seen, space is at a premium. And most spaces are often barely functional for modern ways of working. Spaces that groups of people can work in effectively can be especially hard to come by. Having a dedicated space over time is a luxury not everyone can afford. But there are ways that you can set up, maintain, and break down spaces that will help your team capitalize on the benefits of a shared physical space, even when conditions aren’t ideal.

So what can I do?

Get a temporary space
Use a regular conference room or other large area to hold a workshop for a few hours or a day or two. If possible, renting a space takes advantage of the fact that the space is unfamiliar and gets people out of their normal routines.
Take it to go
When you have to leave the space you’ve created together, you need not leave it all behind. Large Post-its (2×3 feet) are the best tool for facilitating groups in a temporary space; using them to collect insights and ideas lets you transport aspects of a physical space back into the team’s natural habitat. Just make sure that when you move the work, the team helps with organizing and storing it so that the new mental model is imprinted on everyone.

Lack of Engagement During Remote Meetings

When everyone can’t be in the same place at the same time, it may be a challenge to keep everyone as engaged as you’d like. You might notice that some people are not following along, and when you can’t see them, you may not know why. A few tactical changes can help you know what’s going on with your audience and make the proceedings easier to follow.

So what can I do?

Be a “host”
Think about a working session or demo as a type of TV show you’re hosting. Don’t just focus on one thing. If the discussion is around the table or at the whiteboard, show the room and whiteboard using a positionable camera. Even if you’re all reviewing a shared document, you can break away from that screen periodically to bring everyone back together into the discussion rather than staring at the slides or document.
Be specific
One of the complaints I’ve heard from those working remotely, especially when many people are in a room together, is that they get lost about what’s being discussed. Get people in the room to speak explicitly, naming the thing they’re talking about rather than saying “this here,” and make sure to ask for understanding and input from remote participants. As a facilitator, you can and should break in from time to time to remind those in the room that there are others who aren’t there and may need additional context.
Be early
Remote meetings always go wrong at the outset. Dial-ins don’t work, and people need to be wrangled. Get set up ahead of time, dialing in early to work out the kinks, at least until it becomes routine (if it ever does).

Large Group Meetings Don’t Feel Collaborative

Wrangling a large group to come together and generate or evaluate ideas can be a challenge. I find that when the audience gets over 7–10 people, it takes a ton of effort to actually get people participating. One reason for this might be because being in a large group can mean people don’t know one another well. It may also be because large groups generally come together to receive information, not participate.

Whatever the cause, there are times when it just makes sense to get a large group together. You may need to get several camps to understand the problem or share their perspectives. Perhaps you want to tap into lots of different expertise and get them building off of each other, and that means you need to use the space well.

So what can I do?

Prepare
It’s going to take some choreography to get people moving around the space. Think through different areas of the room for different activities. Work in groups and have each one use a different part of the room, and then switch the groups around so that people can work more closely but still get exposure to the entire group.
Provide ample standing room
You’ll need people to be able to navigate the space, take in ideas, and even place and group ideas themselves. This requires clear space to move around.
Make sure there’s sufficient seating
While you want people on their feet, they can’t stand the whole time. Make sure you have seats for everyone, even if the chairs need to be moved in and out, or around, the room. In some cultures there are specific seats or positions that the boss occupies. Whether it’s the head of the table or a specific chair, shake things up by assigning seats and grouping people in different ways.
Consider your writing surfaces
If you need people to contribute written ideas, whether by writing on Post-its or sketching solutions, think about what they will write on. If possible, avoid having a big conference table; instead, use smaller tables or individual surfaces so people aren’t wedged apart or tempted to open their laptops and check out.
Clear some wall space
Jorge Arango’s advice to make things visible requires wall space. Whether you put up big Post-its or use whiteboards, be sure to create and label clear places where different parts of the conversation are recorded. Large foam-core boards, which let you carry the work around, are also useful. Keeping tidy isn’t as important as keeping organized. Good facilitators will use clear headings and colors to designate different topics, approaches, or hypotheses that the team can internalize.
Pay attention to mood
It can be useful to control the mood—for example, by dimming the lights or playing music when you want people to work independently on developing or critiquing ideas. Changing the mood when you want to group to reconvene sends a clear signal that you’ve switched into a different mode.
Don’t forget food
Low blood sugar can make people cranky, and breaking for meals may have your team wandering off. Feeding people during a meeting or taking the whole team out to eat is a great way to make room for people to socialize and get to know one another while sustaining them.

Conclusion

The physical and virtual spaces we work in can affect how well we collaborate, so it’s worth putting in some effort to optimize them. Physical spaces help people have higher-bandwidth interactions and create a spatial mental map of the ideas generated within them. But while it’s useful to be able to come back to a space and have impressions and memories of discussions, it isn’t always an option for teams that aren’t colocated or can’t always find time to be together. Virtual spaces allow for more asynchronous communications and support distributed teams. However, they can be difficult to get working right. It’s not necessarily that one option is better than the other, but people have different preferences for how they work and it’s important to support those whenever possible. It’s also important to supply spaces where folks not only can be together, but also can focus independently on their work, whether in person or remotely.

Key Takeaways

  • The space that a team works in is critical to the effort. It provides literal and figurative space where ideas can live, and helps teams create a mental map of what’s been explored and discussed.

  • Physical spaces have the advantage of giving people a spatial model of the work, and support face-to-face communication that is high-bandwidth.

  • Virtual spaces support asynchronous communication and distributed teams who can’t rely on in-person communication.

  • People need space to work in a “heads-down” manner, not just in a group brainstorm setting.

  • Provide choices about whether people meet up in person or virtually to allow for differences in how people prefer to work.

Get Mastering Collaboration now with the O’Reilly learning platform.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from nearly 200 publishers.