The Epic Move Part 3: Collaboration Room Design

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we looked at the 4 Work Modes, as defined by Gensler, explored the psychological impact of dimensional room aspect ratios on focus, and asked the question of why more of the Collaboration Room concepts implemented in higher education are not implemented in the workplace.

In other types of facilities, much time is spent on subtle or not so subtle cues about, where to focus attention and view the “action”. In theaters, concert halls, and houses of worship, we give considerable attention to details such as the height of the stage, proscenium arch, stage thrust, curtain locations, and lighting. These all provide subtle cues to the audience about where they should focus their attention.

Paramount to the proper design of these facilities is the consideration of sightlines. In fact, this is a primary consideration for just about any type of presentation or collaboration facility that typically involves audio or video design. In stadiums, arenas, and civic centers, just two decades ago, the only question was “Is there a clear view of the field of play or stage?” Today this question is on equal footing with the question “Is there a clear view of the displays?”. Before you doubt that this could possibly equal the importance of direct sightlines to the direct action, consider that almost all of the advertising revenue is generated from those displays.

In any case, the point is that in all of these other types of facilities we give significant importance to sightlines. In the case of the conference room, I argue that in the majority of spaces, we not only miss the boat completely for collaboration, but often fall short even for the modest goal of presentation.

Let me explain. In the case of all the other types of facilities that I just described (theaters, stadiums, churches, etc), sightlines are viewed as a primary consideration of the space. For our lowly conference room example, all of those poor people seated around that rectangular conference table have to either lean forward or backwards to see around the people in front of them to the front of the room (end of the table).

You may scratch your head at the point above, saying “… but all of those people are facing each other at the table”. A decade ago, people might have just sat around a table talking. One person might have brought in a presentation and sat at the end of the table. Today, people collaborate with vastly more information.

The problem is that most of our conference rooms are not really designed for this activity. They are designed to look like… conference rooms. And how have conference rooms historically been designed? They are historically designed to impress others and offer psychological cues to highlight the importance of the person sitting at the head of the table. Obviously, in some cases, this is still carried out with intention, but in the majority of spaces, I content that we simply have an outdated mental concept of the conference room that doesn’t serve our contemporary functional needs.

Today, decisions are increasingly data driven and time is at a premium. People are not limited to boring Power Point presentations. They want to be able to show a webpage, a picture of a facility, an engineering diagram, or dozens of other types of images. They want to show these things not just from their laptop, but from the iPad, phone, or tablet. They want the freedom to put all of these up for display and really collaborate back and forth.

The point is that collaboration must be weighed not just based on the relative relationship of the seats, but also the relative relationship of the video displays that are required to visualize all this data.

Where can we look for better options? Well, as I’ve mentioned, we can examine education spaces and learn some interesting things. There are also a few other types of spaces that can offer some interesting lessons, which might not be the first that would come to mind.

Operation centers are specifically designed to shift between both presentation and a collaboration workflow. NOCs (Network Operation Centers), EOCs (Emergency Operation Centers) and JOCs (Joint Operation Centers) are often (but not always) designed with both functions of presentation and collaboration in mind (in addition to a whole alphabet soup of similar facilities – NRCC, RRCC, JFO, MACC, IOF – bonus points if you guess what all of these mean). In a future article, we will look at how this is accomplished and how the same principles can be applied to decision making spaces.

Before moving on, we still have to ask why these techniques have been adopted in the education space and others, but not the corporate workspace. It may be harder to measure productivity than grades, but wouldn’t it still make sense to come to the same conclusions?

I think the answer lies in the drivers that have brought about the idea of “collaboration” (in the sense of the 4 modalities) in the workplace. In trying to figure out where you want to go, it helps to examine where you have been, so in our next article, we’ll examine the leading workplace trends.

Obviously, there are space constraints that must be worked into the design of these spaces. My point here is that I don’t even see a significant dialog about the ideas that I am putting forward here. Instead, most of these spaces start in planning with a cookie-cutter assumption that becomes increasingly locked in place. The actual design of these spaces is not that complex. We just have to start thinking about them differently from conception.

We should expect more of our Conference Spaces. The basic business assumption is that these spaces are where everyone comes together to analyze data and form the group decisions that ultimately steer the organization. I humbly argue that unless the train is going in the right direction, all of that focus is wasted effort. For anyone that doesn’t see the connection to this logic, I suggest reading the recent bestseller “The One Thing”. In a conversation centered on the intersection of focus and direction, this book makes a better case than I could ever hope to make.

In our next article, we will look at the trends that are driving the push towards collaborative environments. You can sign up for our blog updates below to get notified when the next article in this series is posted.

ation are not implemented in the workplace.


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