The Epic Move from Presentation to Collaboration Space: Part 2

In the previous article of our Collaborative Spaces series, we began to explore the implications of the 4 work modes, as defined by Gensler. We also explained the distinction between Collaboration as a work mode, vs Collaboration as a way that work modes are carried out (ie Presentation vs Collaboration).

To expand on this idea a little further, consider the concept of a conference room. This is clearly a space we traditionally associate with Collaboration (versus the other Work Modes of Focus, Learning, and Socialization). Yet, these spaces still tend to be designed for Presentation, rather than Collaboration.

When you think of the traditional conference room space, what comes to mind? For most people, it would be a large rectangular conference table with a large display at one end. This is so ingrained into our psyche as the orientation for a conference room, that many people would not even question the arrangement during space planning and SD, yet this orientation has unintended consequences.

Forcing a conference room into a stretched rectangle with a large display at one end provides subconscious cues that the action will be at one end of the room. The more “stretched” the rectangle becomes, the more this effect will be increased. The same holds true for a classroom, or any space that allows interaction.

Think for a second about a movie that you have watched that depicted a conference room with an incredibly long conference table. Picture an important executive sitting at one end of the table. If the film director is trying to highlight the importance of that executive (and maybe his iron grip and lack of concern for consensus), he might shoot the scene to exaggerate the length of the table and make it appear a mile long.

These are subliminal cues that reinforce the importance of a single person (presentation style) to the detriment of a mutual and equal exchange (collaboration style).

In the classroom, there has been a clear shift from presentation to collaboration in the sense that I describe here. For starters, if you consider the relative relationship between the depth and width of the room, over the decades, classrooms have become more wide and less deep. If you look at an “old-school” schoolhouse, the rooms are relatively narrow. Again, this is to reinforce the authority at the head of the room. It’s a subtle cultural, sociological, and psychological cue. More recently, not only has the “aspect ratio” of length vs width shifted in education spaces, but there has been a move away from a centralized “presentation position” reflected by a single large screen to a format that supports a number of collaborative workstations.

For anyone involved in the design of education spaces, the reasons for this shift are obvious. There is a large volume of research to show that students learn better within a collaborative environment, with a teacher as facilitator, as opposed to just passively listening to a teacher who is “presenting” material.

So, if this conclusion is so clear in the educational sector, what’s different in the workplace?

I think we have seen a slow or almost non-existent uptake of these concepts in the workplace for two primary reasons. The first is the existence of data to support the shift in the educational sector. When we talk about collaboration in the workplace, we are predominantly referring to knowledge workers. Out of all segments of workers, this is the hardest to gain a measure of productivity. There have been some attempts to measure direct effects on productivity through memory tests and other similar measures, but this only takes us so far.

More commonly, workplace statistics have considered other measures, to make a two-step connection. This includes measures, such as job satisfaction, which other studies have linked to productivity. Obviously, this also requires a two-step leap of faith.

By contrast, consider education spaces, where we have a direct and quantitative measure of every minute change, through test scores. What could possibly be a more direct measure on the impact of changes to a space? Going back to our 4 Work Modalities, it makes sense to incorporate everything we know about education into corporate spaces that are dedicated to a Learning Modality. I would take this one step further and suggest that the core activity of education is the exchange of information, which is also central to the Collaboration Modality.

In smaller spaces, the limits imposed on collaboration appear to be primarily related to technology. As the spaces become larger (think traditional conference room), the issues appear to be a combination of technology and architecture.

I’ve spent nearly two decades helping people design or implement audio and video systems to either present or collaborate. With that said, I’m no architect and consider myself a humble person, so it leads me to an obvious question. If this makes so much sense to me, why do so many workplace “Collaboration” spaces appear to be designed for “Presentation”?

In our next article, we will look at a wide variety of spaces including theatres, sports facilities, and operation centers to see how their basic design influences attention, perspective, and presentation. I’ll share a few insights from these building types that can be applied to any situation to trigger psychological cues about interaction within the space.

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