Thinking on the negative impacts of water cooler chitchat has changed radically. Just like scientists have discovered that chocolate and red wine are good for you, so too have the guys and gals in white lab coats learned that casual interactions among employees promote trust, cooperation and, yes, even innovation.
Hmmm, wondered people who design office space for a living. Could we create spaces to encourage such hook-ups? And so began a series of high-profile workplace redesigns that resulted in open floor plans, lower cubicle walls and physical spaces that resembled town commons, Parisian cafes and playgrounds. Most failed.
The reasons why makes for interesting reading in Who Moved My Cube?, in Harvard Business Review. But here's the gist. Instead of encouraging informal contacts, these places became crowded, loud, time-sinking, non-private gathering spots that employees soon decided to avoid rather than join. And the discussions that occurred in them were superficial rather than something that people bonded around.
According to the authors of the piece, researchers Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks, three prerequisites are required to design spaces that promote casual but important interactions:
- Proximity. These spaces must be be near large amounts of foot traffic. Copy machines and coffee makers make fine people magnets in this regard.
- Privacy. People need to feel they can talk without fear of interruption or of being overheard. Alcoves can provide protected spaces.
- Permission. The corporate culture must promote the idea that it's OK to stop and chat. Comfy furniture and work machines help create that message.
Now look around at your office spaces. Are they designed to inspire or discourage informal conversation?
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