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Designing Coworking for Collaboration

3 minute read
by Alex Hillman

Deskmag just published a piece about a Dutch incubator’s research project about physical proximity and collaboration. Among the things that stood out to me, these two sentences had the most tips for what was happening in space design as related to collaboration:

This particular space put groups with a similar focus together in separate corridors of the building. Artists, graphic designers, and musicians were clustered together, and each company had its own separate office within the corridor.

Designing Coworking for Teams

First, I notice that they refer to “companies” in more than one place, and then the fact that companies have separate offices. At Indy Hall, when we’ve had teams of more than two, we’ve had a consistant experience of those teams interacting far less. Unless the team members are particularly gregarious, the interactions with one another are enough to satiate the core needs that are otherwise unmet by people who are getting the most from coworking. We’ve theorized about ways to combat this, and among those theories has been one executed by PariSoma in San Francisco, by adding an open loft around the coworking space that’s designed for the teams they are home to. In essence, the teams have to walk through the open coworking area to arrive at their then semi-private (still open area) workspace. I’ll be visiting PariSoma for the first time next month, and I’m curious to see how the teams interact, if the goal of designing serendipity into the workflow of the space has been successful. To date, though I have yet to experience a coworking space that has achieved an ideal scenario for mixing the interactions between pre-existing teams and individuals.

Proximity Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

Second, I noticed that they’ve clustered people by focus. I’ll presume this means industry or discipline based on the article. While grouping people by their affection (or affliction) this is common in large company offices (and hospitals) for efficiency, we’ve found at Indy Hall that it’s counterproductive. We instead design for serendipity in terms of working in proximity.

The article talks about proximity in terms of closeness having an effect on collaboration. What I think they missed was designing for the effect of zones of proximal development. Instead of putting people who are similar together, put people who are different together.

The Spark Plug Analogy

My favorite new analogy for this is a spark plug: the two conductive tips can’t be touching each other, or else the spark can’t take place. A spark plug actually require some distance between the conductors in order for it to work. Coworking, I believe, is the same – the “distance” we’re talking about just isn’t physical, but instead, in variations of interests, experiences, and worldviews. We achieve this by NOT controlling where people sit, but instead, having smaller desk pods (3-4, though we’ve had them up to 6), and having a pretty steadfast “rule” of not allowing all pods to be full time or flex. By creating a cluster of workspaces where there’s a mix of semi-permanent culture of full time members mixing daily with the churn of whoever showed up that day, or at that time of day, the types of “distance” created between members that are in closer proximity to each other allow for the desired sparks to take place.

Designing to Let Things Happen

I’ve noticed this as a pattern, often times a project not achieving its desired results is because it’s too busy making things happen rather than letting things happen. Reading through this particular article, it seems like the design was focused on designing places within the workspace to make things happen rather than designing the workspace itself let things happen.


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Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.