How Density Builds Better Ideas in the Workplace
Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a six-part series on five different work modes. The first piece outlined a framework for each work mode, while subsequent posts explore a single work mode in greater depth — including focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest. This post was co-authored by Kelly Griffin and Ryan Mullenix.
“Problems cannot be solved with more of the same thinking that created them.”
If innovation is the backbone of the creative economy, ideas are its lifeblood. The ability to productively come together with colleagues — to brainstorm, review and provide feedback on ideas that help solve problems — is essential. However, today’s problems are incredibly complex. They are often broad, imprecise and incomplete. Therefore, finding the right solution requires a process that not only includes different areas of expertise but, just as importantly, individual preferences. As a result, it can be challenging to effectively work together to generate impactful insights — and to build and expand on new thinking.
Bringing people together in the right way can help spur creative growth. Humans are innately social beings. This “herd” mentality carries over from pre-historic times when our social groups allowed us to thrive as a species. In modern times, a plethora of studies show that diversity improves creativity and performance by up to 35%, while density increases innovation, especially in urban populations.
In the post-pandemic world, there isn’t time to wait for corner office ideas. Ideas must be encouraged to come from anyone, anytime. In the workplace, design strategies can help improve these connections both in-person and remotely to build teamwork, trust and emotional intelligence such that organizations and society at large can flourish and be ready for what’s next. Below are three ways to nurture innovative ideas in the workplace.
Recognize that working together can take different forms.
Organizations, teams and individuals require multiple levels of teamwork depending on the industry, role or company culture. To start, it can be helpful to identify why teams come together in the first place. Collaboration is a very loose term. Define the ideal outcomes for these efforts, then review how much time is typically needed, including frequency: Is it for a few hours a day, a couple of times a week, several days a month?
Teamwork typically is structured in three different ways:
Long-term team sessions. This entails groups working together over an extended period of time, from initial idea generation and strategy development to production. These teams often know each other well, so consider how a virtual network can enable new voices to offer insights at the appropriate moments.
Formal interactions. This type of group work frequently includes activities such as report-outs, information sharing and formal meetings with colleagues or customers. Given the rote aspect of this engagement, sharing information in advance will enable the interaction to be more of a discussion that leads to active problem solving.
Quick touch bases. This encompasses a range of informal dialogue, from those serendipitous moments in the hallway that lead to unexpected ideas, to planned coffee breaks to discuss work strategy. Teams working remotely or in hybrid modes will be at risk of losing this critical impromptu dialog. Reflect on how important this mode is to ideation to determine ways to overcome this potential detriment.
Regardless of the cadence and duration, it is important to foster open communication to create a groundwork that enables creative and connective work. Transparency, awareness, and visual expression of processes and outcomes are crucial elements.
Observe where group creativity and empathy flourish best.
As various means of team engagement take shape, reflect on and discuss how in-person and remote employees engage in teamwork. What makes working together more successful in one instance and less so in another?
A tailored environment can allow team members to improve upon ideas, while also giving and receiving constructive feedback. Strategies to enhance teamwork can include reverse mentoring, affect labeling (putting feelings into words) and theory of mind (understanding what others are feeling).
Design spaces and behaviors that enhance and align group work.
While many organizations continue to work remotely during Covid-19, when the pandemic ends, new hybrid in-person and remote teamwork are likely to become the norm. This may mean learning new ways of working and building new habits. Here are a few design frameworks to boost team synergy.
Embrace a hybrid work mode. As social creatures, nuanced body language and facial expressions are a key part of communication, which is fundamental to group work. Yet this can be a challenge over Zoom. Humans hear 25% of what is said and retain half of that — the rest is picked up in body language. The office can help “build muscles” for employees to come together. Design strategies that integrate technology in an intuitive way can support hybrid in-person and remote work more effectively so team members are aligned. Digital walls and platforms are quickly being adopted for brainstorming sessions, so consider the visibility and acoustics to such spaces for remote workers. Live-streaming can not only enable an awareness of ideation in the office, but if placed properly, it can also provide a casual yet important glimpse of fellow co-workers — and a reminder to connect with them. In addition, by determining how in-person space will be used, many offices can do away with rigid, formal conference room tables and instead offer comfortable furniture to encourage gathering and build cohesion.
Consider interstitial zones. Transition or “in-between” spaces between meeting rooms and individual work areas can help enhance the knowledge and ideas shared before teams come together, as well as in the moments afterward. Warm-up and cool-down areas connected to group spaces can help colleagues prepare and assimilate thinking. These areas are best when adjacent to the “beaten path” but furnished for shorter, stand-up conversations. As important as this informal sharing is, be aware that those who are remote may miss out on these critical divergent and convergent moments. As basic as it may sound, develop protocols for how to communicate these in-between outcomes.
Create systems to manage time well. Effective teamwork builds in ample time to develop ideas, process thoughts and solve problems with colleagues. To create a balance between group work and individual tasks, it can be helpful to schedule collaborative bursts in 60- to 75-minute segments, with five- or ten- minute breaks in between. Digital panels outside and inside conference rooms can communicate group schedules, and even include a countdown on how much meeting time has passed, while reminding teams to take breaks. Also, acknowledging that contributions to these sessions will vary based on individual location and preference for engagement ensure multiple modes of sharing are possible, as well as cadences that allow for processing and follow-up.
Enhance access and views to nature. Numerous studies show that nature, both real and simulated, improves wellbeing and productivity by lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Outdoor cabanas equipped with digital technology can create new ways for distributed employees to work together. Interior spaces can also benefit from the positive effects of greenery, from team booths with green planting screens that add privacy to digital displays in conference rooms that showcase nature scenes. Furnished with soft seating, these indoor and outdoor spaces can also serve as informal touchpoints that break down barriers, ease the flow of conversations and build trust. The in-person office must offer benefits that employees don’t have in their remote setting. A diverse, welcoming and nature-laden environment that is energized by colleagues is a great start.
Working together productively is a critical component of knowledge exchange and idea generation. Knowledge workers require focus to internalize information and transform it into new strategies, and they also need collaboration with a diverse group of colleagues to advance ideas into truly innovative solutions. The physical environment is a key enabler to help encourage these behaviors, supporting a process that helps people openly create, improve, and refine ideas. Design strategies that help people come together — even when apart — can help teams harness these ideas for an even greater purpose.