Transforming the office into a place where people want to be

Credit: Mindaugas Danys via Flickr

Coworking spaces are a growing trend focused primarily on entrepreneurs, freelancers, and other remote workers wanting to get out of both their houses and coffee shops. They offer flexible office-space along with a sense of community and even ad hoc collaboration.

Despite being a global phenomenon -- virtually every major city has at least a few coworking spaces and a growing number of smaller cities have at least one or two -- coworking spaces aren't likely to replace the traditional workplace for the majority of knowledge workers anytime soon.

[SEE ALSO: Why We're Obsessed With Yahoo's No Work-From-Home Policy; The Office Is Dying - Get Ready For Bring Your Own Workplace (BYOW) ]

But they do provide a great a template for encouraging and supporting an increasingly mobile-first workforce as well as an increasingly social-oriented workforce. Both of those are going to be key to success in the coming decades as is the ad hoc collaboration style that technology and a new generation of workers are creating.

What coworking spaces offer

Coworking spaces are designed to be incredibly open and flexible. Part of that is basic necessity. The number of members working in each space and the tasks they perform are different each day. Coworking memberships are often priced based on how many days each week or month a member expects to use the space and what resources they require. While many spaces offer assigned desks or assigned offices, many members select a different desk or workspace each time based on what they need to do.

That flexibility also extends beyond the traditional desk-centric workspace. Most coworking spaces offer lounge areas to a change of pace and an opportunity to interact with other members. Many offer free-form quiet space for people who need to concentrate on specific tasks or collaborate in private. Some offer gaming and lunch areas. And almost all have regular after work events or lunches where members can get to know each other in a more social atmosphere.

The flexibility of space and social resources -- which can be traced back to Silicon Valley startups and powerhouses like Google and Facebook -- engender in-person social interactions and allow coworking members to bounce ideas off each other, brainstorm, collaborate in ways they might not have considered otherwise, and share advice about virtually anything -- technical issues, potential contractors and consultants, prospective clients, and ways to improve or expand a current project. The diverse mix of individuals in the typical coworking space means that those interactions can deliver a flow of resources and information that probably wouldn't happen in the stereotypical cubicle-land of most companies.

Although coworking spaces represent a very different employment and productivity model, there's absolutely no reason that companies or organizations across a wide swath of fields can't deliver similar experiences and reap similar rewards.

Coworking-style features that companies can build on

Creating this kind of environment at a traditional company may seem like a tall order, but it doesn't have to be. At its core, a mobile-first and social office includes these features:

  • Ditch the cubicles -- Cubicles isolate individuals and are a barrier to interaction, collaboration, and productivity. Open desks, tables, and other alternatives are better for delivering a communal and collaborative feel. This can go even further by ditching offices for managers and executives and encouraging them to work and interact with their departments whenever feasible.
  • Flexible desks and seating arrangement -- Assigned desks or cubicles don't always group people in ideal ways. Whether they separate people working together by few feet or hundreds of yards, assigned desks can impede productivity and collaboration. Allowing users to select their own space -- and change that selection as needed -- can increase productivity and satisfaction.
  • Quiet space -- Many business tasks and projects require focused research and thinking. While cubicles provide some separation, they're rarely effective for creating quiet space. Instead, a series of rooms designated for quiet work, much like quiet study rooms in a library, can provide distraction-free workspaces for any worker that needs it without creating barriers to interaction and collaboration.
  • Collaboration and brainstorming space -- Whether it's a quiet room, a conference room, or other less-defined space, rooms where pairs or teams can get together away from distraction and focus on working together on a project or problem are essential for maximizing collaboration.
  • Lounges and communal areas -- Well-appointed lounge areas that aren't specific to jobs or departments are great for encouraging interaction and collaboration that might not otherwise occur. They should provide an environment that encourages people to hang out, share ideas and problems, and work on tasks that don't require intense concentration. Rather than providing traditional communal spaces like a cafeteria or lunch room, these spaces should have a vibe like a coffee shop, hotel bar, or sports club -- a place to relax and play as much as to work.
  • Spaces should have a personality -- Every company has its own culture and every department and team has its own flavor. That should be reflected in a workspace. That could mean a hip downtown loft style space, a laid-back collegiate feel, or a more upscale professional feel. Whatever it is, it shouldn't be a dull, gray, institutional space that employees can't wait to leave.

Making the switch

Adopting all of those changes at once could give long-time employees some real culture shock. One way to buffer the transition is to makes changes slowly over time. That also allows for tweaking plans based on feedback and experience.

Another option is to involve employees in the planning process. Citrix vice president of HR Brandy Fulton told me recently that allowing members of engineering teams to have an active role in the process of planning flexible workspaces both reduced their hesitation about the changes and resulted in a spaces that were much more tailored to the needs of the team members.

The best advice about developing a plan for supporting a social and mobile-first (or even mobile-only) workforce is to learn from the success (or failure) of others. Check out coworking spaces or other flexible and open options. Connect with companies that have made the move to spaces similar to who you're considering. Use resources like Glassdoor to peek inside companies for inspiration and to judge how their employees feel about their space.

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