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Designing for Collaboration in a Post-COVID World

April 16, 2021
Group of people collaborating together

Earn CEU Credits:

i+s’ Continuing Education Series articles allow design practitioners to earn continuing education unit credits through an article.

Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this article. To receive one health, safety and wellness hour of continuing education credit (0.1 CEU) as approved by IDCEC or 1 Learning Unit as approved by AIA, read the article, then log on to take the associated exam

After reading this article, you should be able to:

  • Name four of the benefits of collaboration.
  • Describe how COVID-19 has exacerbated challenges to collaboration.
  • Explain three workplace trends stemming from the pandemic.
  • Apply design strategies that help foster collaboration in post-COVID workplace.

*This CEU opportunity is sponsored by Ghent, a GMI Company.








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As a design professional, you see the value of collaboration in the workplace on an everyday basis. It’s not hard to imagine why the same factors apply to the teams that will be using the workspaces you design. For any business, it’s crucial to be able to work with others to understand objectives, share ideas, and consider solutions.

Collaboration is the act of working jointly with others to produce, create, or achieve something.1, 2 But the concept goes deeper than simply working together. In fact, IT entrepreneur Mike Kulakov distinguishes between true collaboration and mere teamwork. Whereas teams work together to meet project goals, each member has their own duties and responsibilities, and members need not necessarily share common values, he notes.

He describes the deeper engagement of collaboration this way: “Collaborators can settle issues and disputes without the leader’s mediation as they share the same values. The team leader performs the function of guidance, acting more as an adviser rather than a controller.”3

In an architectural/design project, we would view the common values as the design intent of the project. The strategies used to achieve that design intent would be determined collaboratively, such as when disparate disciplines explore solutions during a charrette. But in Kulakov’s view, a true collaboration would mean that as the project progresses, there may be instances where project team members could work out specifics that don’t need the involvement of the lead architect or designer since they all agree on the design intent.

Man and woman bumping elbows.

Kulakov sees collaboration as superior to traditional teamwork, noting, “Although this type of team interaction takes a lot of work to be established, it is a far more efficient, flexible, and sustainable way for teams to work together.” 3

Collaboration trends in general business

While the importance of collaboration would seem to be obvious, that’s not always the case. In fact, some business leaders argue that “too many cooks spoil the broth,” viewing collaboration as a time waster that can be expensive and create more problems than it solves. In fact, one Harvard Business Review report says simply, “collaboration is dangerous” and cites eight reasons why some professionals view it that way. 4

Among the more common reasons for resistance to collaboration is one that designers can easily relate to—fear of giving up control and/or credit.”  5

But today, your clients are likely to expect you to help them foster collaborative work in your office designs, as companies are placing greater emphasis on it. Indeed, 71% of business leaders assign “somewhat high” to “very high” priority to collaboration, and 81% consider internal/ external collaboration as important to their company’s success. 6

Why? In a nutshell, to boost productivity. A 2017 survey of 1,100 U.S. businesses found that those promoting collaborative work are five times more likely to be high-performance companies. 7

Employees working collaboratively are more engaged and more motivated to perform. Stanford research found that people perceiving their work as a joint project with others had the following characteristics over a control group of individuals working alone:

  • Persisted 48% to 64% longer on a challenging task
  • Reported being more interested in the project
  • Reported less project fatigue
  • Became more “engrossed in the task”
  • And had higher performance. 8

In addition to the simple need for greater performance in a challenging economy, collaboration is being fueled by changes in the way work is performed. With other industries now taking a cue from the design/construction world, over half of all companies are reorganizing their activities around projects and programs, Project Management Institute research reveals. “This is The Project Economy—and it's the next generation of teams that will determine how well organizations perform,” the nonprofit noted in a recent report. 9

Projects mean teams, and those teams are growing larger, thanks to a contemporary phenomenon identified by research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “Our individual knowledge base is becoming more and more specialized,” notes a report based on the findings of Benjamin Jones, a strategy professor at the Kellogg School. “This increasing specialization of skills means that you need bigger and bigger groups, with more and more specialists, in order to be successful.” 10

The role of collaboration in design/architecture

Collaboration, or at least working with teams, is nothing new to designers and architects. But in recent years, several factors have been intensifying the importance of effective collaboration in design and construction projects. Among the changes fueling the need for greater collaboration are “complex financing arrangements, early engagement of the supply chain, and the introduction of subcontractor and supplier design.” 11

Technology that facilitates teamwork also has been pushing collaboration, as teams are able to assess solutions and potential changes more easily. Award-winning Australasian architect Richard Voss writes, “Progress in information technology and Building Information Models (BIM) for construction projects have revolutionized the way architectural studios share design information, collaborate, and find real-time solutions. This integrated model allows teams to develop a scheme from geographically remote locations.” 12

Along with such technologies are the philosophies that benefit from the use of them, such as
sustainable design, evidence-based design, universal design, inclusive design, and design for health and wellness. Disparate disciplines are encouraged to begin collaborating early in the design process to achieve sustainable project goals, for instance. Journalist Mike Scott describes the trend in a report in The Guardian: “New technology and ways of working are helping to break down barriers between the different players in the construction process. Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), which advocates the collective harnessing of all project participants' talents and insights, is one approach that many in the industry think can make the process more collaborative.” 13

The need for greater resilience also is fueling collaboration efforts. For instance, earthquakes within the last decade prompted New Zealand officials to call for greater collaboration between architects and engineers. 14

In a 2014 report responding to a statement by the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission, several industry groups—The Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand, the New Zealand Institute of Architects, and the New Zealand Registered Architects Board, supported by the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment—wrote, “Architects and engineers need to collaborate better in the early stages of building projects. An architect designing a building and then saying to an engineer: ‘Now make it work’ isn’t good enough, and risks mediocrity or worse. At the extreme, if the collaboration between architect and engineer is poor, the results can be dangerous.” 14

Another driver of collaboration among architects is project complexity. Randy Deutsch, FAIA, LEED AP, an author and educator at the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believes this positions architects differently than in the past. “Architects in the coming years will be needed less as content providers of design intent than as facilitators, orchestrators, collaborators, and integrators” of information and the decision-making process, he notes. “As facilitative leaders, architects can become experts in knowing how to find information as opposed to what the information is. When collaborating, it is not about how much any one person happens to know: projects today are too complex for any one person to know everything. Knowing from whom—and where—on the team to find information is more important than one’s ability to store and retrieve it.” 5

He cites six qualities that make architects ideally suited to lead collaborative, integrated teams:

  • They’re accustomed to simultaneously considering opposing viewpoints until an appropriate solution arises.
  • They focus on the most pressing problem, not just the problem they’re asked to solve.
  • They’re whole-brain thinkers who see the big picture.
  • Not limited by one type of communication, they use available technology—from analog to digital—to lead.
  • They’re empathetic, accustomed to putting themselves in the shoes of all stakeholders to understand needs and concerns.
  • Comfortable with uncertainty, they can move forward even in the face of incomplete information. 5

Benefits of collaborating

While trends such as knowledge specialization and work structure around projects have been accelerating adoption of collaboration in recent years, it’s easy to see the concept’s appeal to companies. Working collaboratively offers a multitude of benefits in and of itself—both for business in general and for the AEC industry in particular. In addition to the productivity gains of improved engagement that were explored above, benefits include:

  • Improved project management: Getting everyone on same page from the early phases of a project helps keep a team in sync throughout the process. Decision makers are better informed throughout the process, and issues get resolved faster because they’re communicated on a timely basis.
  • Innovation: Collaboration pulls together people with different skill sets and expertise, creating a diversified talent pool. The team can use the knowledge, experience, and skills of all of its members to find the most optimal solution to every problem. 15

    Take Pixar, for example. Internal collaboration is credited with playing an important role in the success of the company’s films. “Pixar’s unique approach to collaboration has helped ensure they rarely release a dud,” notes journalist Denny Watkins in Fandom. The 20-time Academy Award-winning studio created a collaborative process when developing Toy Story 2, according to the article. Using a less-experienced team to create the sequel, Pixar executives sought collaborative thinking when they weren’t satisfied with the quality of the project as it developed. So they sent in the original Toy Story team to provide solutions, and following the film’s success, adopted a collaborative process they call the Brain Trust. 16
  • Better teamwork: Organizational silos are the top barrier to success for more than two-thirds of companies surveyed. 6 Collaboration breaks down silos, whether they’re company departments that don’t often work closely together or different disciplines on a construction project. Participation in a discussion at the onset of a project helps each party feel invested in the project goals. And it helps them better understand the big picture and their part in it. 15, 17 This improves communication and helps keep project goals on track. 3
  • Professional development: Collaboration takes people out of their comfort zones and exposes them to new ideas and information. “Teams that collaborate not only have an opportunity to learn from each other—their mistakes, successes, failures, workflow, etc.—they’ll also gain an understanding of the other team’s perspective. You get a chance to hear their side of things: their pain points, priorities, even the way they think. Which can be extremely valuable as you work together going forward.” 18 Design teams, in particular, end up broadening their perspectives and approaches to design. 14
  • Employee recruitment and retention: While some tasks are obviously individual, working on a team toward common goals gives people a sense of achievement. It improves the company culture, giving employees a sense of purpose and making them feel valued for their contributions. 17  While the collaboration itself may not decrease turnover and make a company more attractive to top candidates, the improved company culture does. 18
  • Better project outcomes: Because individuals are more engaged, the parties communicate more frequently and more effectively, and everyone stays on the same page, collaboration can make a project more successful. The New Zealand consensus report suggests that it can result in design projects that are more cost-effective, with functionality and aesthetics better integrated, and with improved seismic performance. 14

Challenges to collaboration

Even in the best of times, collaborative work complicates decisions simply because more parties are weighing in. 17 But today with projects growing ever more complex (42% were characterized as highly complex in 2020 9), teams keep growing larger. So there are more moving parts to coordinate, more people to connect, and more to understand.

Additionally, the events of 2020 have put a crimp in traditional means of collaborating. Pandemic-based lockdowns put the brakes on travel, so collaboration that involved in-person meetings of parties from different geographic locations was out. And stay-at-home orders prompted countless companies to allow employees to work from home, accelerating an existing trend toward acceptance of remote work. Many companies found that they were able to function relatively well this way, but it had a profound impact on collaboration.

On the surface, it appeared that companies were faring well with their collaboration efforts. 
An early poll of business leaders across 19 countries found that 47% believed productive collaboration seemed stronger. 19 And one study found employees attending more meetings and sending more emails in the weeks immediately following lockdown. 20

Woman working from home with dog sitting next to her.

But some aspects of the pandemic-related changes would be temporal, while others, such as the work-from-home (WFH) phenomenon, may have staying power. So a Microsoft study dug deeper, accounting for factors unrelated to WFH, such as seasonal changes in work or COVID-19-related childcare responsibilities. 21

Through the lens of a formula designed to show only the effects caused by WFH, the Microsoft study uncovered a very different story. It found that employees spent almost 5% fewer hours collaborating when they worked from home during the pandemic, and that effect was magnified for office employees with less remote collaboration experience. Scheduled meeting hours dropped by 7.5% for companies switching to WFH, while messaging increased by 22%. 21

Meanwhile, essential jobs that were performed on-site had to contend with social distancing. In the construction industry, technology proved helpful for keeping projects moving along despite such needs. A construction law firm cites an example: “A number of building inspectors are unable to visit the physical jobsite location, but still need to get a clear preview of what the job looks like and how the project is progressing. Construction professionals are accomplishing this by documenting each stage of their projects with image-capturing technology.” 22

Other collaborative elements of architectural projects, such as charrettes, likewise needed to adjust. For instance, Arthur Chang, AIA, a principal at Boston-based architectural firm NADAAA described rescheduling weekly in-person meetings for an IPD project at the Rhode Island School of Design to virtual meetings. Mike Medici, AIA, with SmithGroup in Phoenix, noted that the firm had invested in technology to address the continuing need to collaborate during the pandemic. 23

As lockdowns lifted in some areas, returning work forces to offices has not been a simple matter. Employers are contending not only with keeping employees safe, but helping them to feel safe. Fear of infection can become deeply ingrained after the events employees experienced, and some people won’t be able to get past it as easily as others even once the pandemic is over.

Reopened office

Life won’t return to normal for 10% to 15% of the population due to the pandemic’s effect on their mental state, anticipates Steven Taylor, author of The Psychology of Pandemics. Similar concerns were raised by Australian mental-health research group Black Dog Institute, and British public health officials note, “The mental health impact of the pandemic is likely to last much longer than the physical health impact.” 24

Not surprisingly, mental health issues expected to rise include obsessive-compulsive disorder, commonly known as OCD, and anxiety. Post-pandemic, many people may fear a variant strain of the virus. 24

Small wonder, then, that people want work to look different postpandemic, with continuing remote work options and with office design that affords some protection. For instance, most Brits surveyed would prefer to spend no more than three days a week in an office, 25 while nearly half of U.S. workers want office designs that distance people. 26

The post-COVID workplace

Offices are not expected to return to their prepandemic occupation levels after the threat of COVID-19 is over. Working from home will continue to be an option for many knowledge workers. “A new WFH standard is here to stay for most companies,” notes S&P researcher Liam Eagle in analyzing results of a 451 Research study of Q2 2020. “Two-thirds of organizations (67%) expect expanded or universal WFH policies implemented in response to the outbreak will remain in place long-term or permanently.” 27

And a global survey by Dimensional Research published in October 2020 reveals similar findings. “As the pandemic wanes, employees will continue to work increasingly from home, with 58% indicating they will be working from home 8 days or more each month. Additional analysis reveals this change is similar for all seniority levels from front-line workers to executives. This shift represents a significant change in work approach and culture, as only 9% expect to return to working from the office 100% of the time—which means almost every organization is going to need plans for supporting both in-office and remote workers.” 28

The increase in WFH also will have another obvious effect. Despite social distancing, many companies expect to need less square footage than they did prepandemic. Nearly half of companies expect to reduce office space, according to the S&P report. And more than one in five companies anticipate cutting their physical office footprint by more than 25%. Cuts will be most common among the largest companies, as 60% of those with more than $10 billion in revenue plan to decrease their office footprint. 27

Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. notes that collaboration should be an important factor in office property decisions. “A transformational approach to reinventing offices will be necessary. Instead of adjusting the existing footprint incrementally, companies should take a fresh look at how much and where space is required and how it fosters desired outcomes for collaboration, productivity, culture, and the work experience,” McKinsey partners note in a recent report. “That kind of approach will also involve questioning where offices should be located. Some companies will continue to have them in big cities, which many regard as essential to attract young talent and create a sense of connection and energy. Others may abandon big-city headquarters for suburban campuses.” 29

WFH is just one of the trends the pandemic has spurred or accelerated. Janet Pogue McLaurin, AIA, FIIDA, LEED AP BD+C, LEED AP ID+C, has been instrumental in the extensive workplace research of global design firm Gensler. She points to five workplace trends driving priorities for the post-pandemic office:

  • Mobility: Employees will expect not only some WFH freedom, but some control over where and when to exercise it. Pogue McLaurin notes, “The most recent Gensler Workplace Surveys in the U.S. and among global regions found that those in a hybrid model, or those balancing days at the office with working from home appear more deliberate with how they use their time, have better awareness of what their colleagues are working on, and have higher job satisfaction overall.” 30
  • Choice: Workplaces will need to include offices, home, coworking, and even third places such as coffee shops. “That doesn’t mean that there is a one-size-fits-all strategy for all companies: Many workers depend on specific resources at their office. But the nature of work is changing—we’re becoming more versatile, agile, and collaborative. We need a wider array of solutions—both inside and outside the office—to support all workers,” she writes. 30
  • Privacy: “Many workers already struggled to find privacy in the workplace — now they expect to maintain the privacy they have become accustomed to at home,” notes Pogue McLaurin. “Striking the right balance of open/private and individual/group spaces will be key in the future.” 30
  • Unassigned seating: Employees were already struggling with being effective in such settings, and the pandemic added concerns about sharing. “Organizations will need to develop innovative space reservation programs to balance space utilization, employee and team schedules, and safety considerations,” she notes. 30
  • Health and wellbeing: Employees will expect health and wellbeing to be built into everything. “Employers now face mounting pressure to synergize indoor and outdoor spaces, nudge healthy behaviors, and support a sense of psychological well-being,” she finds. 30

The trends and the varying needs of different types of work will lead to differing scenarios. Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School, provides a picture of how collaboration among home-based workforces should be rebuilt postpandemic. She sees three scenarios based on the needs of the work:

  • For jobs that can be handled remotely on a routine basis, such as call center operation, the only collaborative strategy she suggests is social events, which can be virtual, to decrease the sense of isolation.
  • For less-routine jobs that require some collaboration, such as accounting, she recommends both virtual communications technology and occasional in-person team meetings.
  • For nonroutine, highly collaborative work, such as product development, she sees collaboration coming from both cross-boundary work and serendipitous encounters. To rebuild both, she recommends supplementing teams’ existing project management system with technology that creates chance encounters as well as designing the job for chance encounters. “This is the aspect that will require the most ingenuity and experimentation. With face time at a premium, the challenge will be to ensure that every face-to-face encounter has an innovative possibility. Watch out for hybrid virtual/face-to-face events to emerge over the coming months.” 19

As offices are reconsidered, their meeting rooms should accommodate how they’ll be used. Not all meetings are alike. The degree of technology used and the degree of interaction among participants varies from one business to the next. A law firm needs to plan for litigation, while HR offices may need counseling space and a creative ad agency will need a space to foster ideation, explains Kay Sargent of HOK. “Those are three very different types of gatherings, yet most meeting rooms are a rectangular room with the biggest table you can fit and the maximum number of chairs, and that just doesn't cut it anymore,” he says. 31

McKinsey & Co. urges employers to reconsider the role of office space in light of the need for collaboration under the new working trends. “Organizations could create workspaces specifically designed to support the kinds of interactions that cannot happen remotely,” the report suggests. “If the primary purpose of an organization’s space is to accommodate specific moments of collaboration rather than individual work, for example, should 80% of the office be devoted to collaboration rooms? 29

Should organizations ask all employees who work in cubicles, and rarely have to attend group meetings, to work from homes? If office space is needed only for those who cannot do so, are working spaces close to where employees live a better solution?” 29

A CNBC report notes that the increase in remote work may prompt companies to open regional hubs or provide access to coworking spaces, recasting the office building as a status symbol for companies with a workforce and budget big enough to have one in a major city. Offices then would need to prioritize gathering spaces, while focused work is done remotely. 32 

Design considerations in post-COVID collaboration

These changes and trends provide new challenges to collaboration beyond what existed prepandemic. As the Microsoft study found, the increase in remote work is likely to translate to less collaboration and more focused work. Researchers write, “Our findings suggest that the observed changes during the pandemic are mainly due to factors other than WFH, and WFH under normal circumstances is likely to decrease collaboration and increase focus time.” 21

Similarly, in a survey of over 3,500 remote workers from around the world, collaboration and communication tie with loneliness as the biggest struggles with working remotely. Looking at the details of which respondents reported this, researchers conjecture that “while we have endless tools to help remote workers better collaborate and communicate, these tools might primarily aim to support all-remote teams. As we found in our survey results, many people are starting to work remotely while their company remains office-based. If everyone on the team isn’t communicating in the same ways, the challenge remains.” 33

The new WFH norm will change the way meetings are conducted. The Dimensional Research study concludes that remote workers will be participants in 98% of all business meetings. If very few meetings will have everyone gathered in the same room, technology will need to meet the needs of hybrid meetings. 28

And participants should be included as equally as possible, advises McKinsey & Co. “To maintain productivity, collaboration, and learning and to preserve the corporate culture, the boundaries between being physically in the office and out of the office must collapse. In-office videoconferencing can no longer involve a group of people staring at one another around a table while others watch from a screen on the side, without being able to participate effectively,” the McKinsey report states. “Always-on videoconferencing, seamless in-person and remote collaboration spaces (such as virtual whiteboards), and asynchronous collaboration and working models will quickly shift from futuristic ideas to standard practice.” 29

Tech will also need to help employees communicate and collaborate outside of actual conference room meetings. People became accustomed to collaborating digitally during COVID-19, and some of those habits will remain as offices repopulate. “Collaboration and messaging tools will replace marching into a meeting room for workshops, coffee, and donuts,” predicts tech writer Steve Harris. He also sees technology playing other roles in upcoming office design, such as thermal imaging to detect fevers; WiFi analytics to detect the number of people gathered in a small space; smart HVAC systems that better circulate and clean air; and sensors, voice-operated devices, and facial recognition to operate functions so that surfaces such as doors, lights, and elevators can remain touch-free. 25

Since cleaning will be integral to keeping employees safe from future infections, material and furnishing specifications will need to reflect that. “Architects may also design spaces with durable building materials, furniture, flooring, and other surfaces that can stand up to frequent deep cleaning, which is expected to be a lasting necessity of the future workplace for years to come,” notes the CNBC report. 32 While residentially inspired furnishings appeal to workers, those softer furnishings, materials, and finishes must meet new cleaning protocols. 34

COVID-19 lessons are likely to result in workplaces with fewer walled-off offices, more meeting and event spaces, desks spaced farther apart, partitions, cleaning stations, and privacy booths, predicts Brent Capron, design director of interiors at architecture firm Perkins and Will. 32

The shifting role of the physical office forces designers to consider how to balance the need for effective collaboration with the desire to avoid too much closeness. With social distancing likely to continue for awhile, 35 Harris notes that office design will need to reverse a prior trend. “Instead of being designed to encourage interaction, offices will now need to do the opposite,” he writes. “Social distancing is a priority: ventilation, one-way office corridors, and de-densification will be to the fore.” 25 Designers should allow for more space per occupant count than in the past so that distancing can be maintained; furniture should be arranged to promote distancing and to minimize close interaction between people. 34

But pushing people apart is at odds with the new role of offices. “Coming together in the workplace to socialize and collaborate will become the greatest purpose that the new office can fulfill,” a Steelcase report notes. “The shared spaces that support this purpose also bring a welcomed warmth and energy to the workplace.” 34

So designers are now challenged to create workspaces that make people feel connected, but safe. Offices still need the same performance strategies, but they have the new functional needs of physical distancing, circulation patterns, and spatial context: 34

  • Distancing: Furniture must be arranged to accommodate individuals’ “personal spheres” of 6 ft. from others.
  • Circulation patterns: Pathways throughout the space must have enough width, directional traffic, or shielding to allow people to maintain their personal sphere while moving around.
  • Spatial context: Designers need to understand elements that affect each space’s safety such as the number of occupants, ingress/egress, and airflow as well as whether walls and furniture are moveable.  34

The need for “safe connection” is prompting reconsideration of the open office concept so prevalent in office design for years. Open office layouts have not been without their detractors. While praised for facilitating collaboration and teamwork, they can be challenging for employees who need to focus on individual work. 36

Now, a Wharton report notes that COVID-19 may be “helping along the demise” of open offices. As Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard tells it, “It looks beautiful, but from a working standpoint it’s distracting, and privacy is really hard. The open-office concept can make it difficult to really get into deep work, and I think given the health issues we are now seeing, it may be more challenging. The pandemic has highlighted for us the power of fresh air and the circulation of air. The diffusion of the particles is seemingly important, so having an office with windows that open could also be desirable. Having the ability to really control the hygiene of your workspace is going to be important for people going forward.” 37

Gensler’s Pogue McLaurin has studied how workers react to open offices and believes the problem is not with open layouts, but with the degree of openness. “The trend toward more open environments has led to the rise of shared or unassigned seating to provide more space for collaborative areas for group work, but to the detriment of space for focusing or personal use. Employees don’t want a complete reversal of these trends, but better space allocation,” she notes. 30 

Before the pandemic, people were already clamoring for more private space at work, according to Gensler’s U.S. Workplace Survey 2019. But they didn’t want totally private spaces either. “When it comes to deciding what constitutes the best workplaces, workers actually tend to put collaborative values ahead of individual values,” the report found. It rated “mostly open” settings as having the highest measurable performance as well as the best worker experience. “Mostly open” offices complement the open space with on-demand areas of enclosure for privacy and individual work. 38

So how does a design address needs for privacy, collaboration, and safety all at the same time? Private work areas can be complemented by collaboration zones—“communal areas where coworkers, teams, departments, etc., can meet to brainstorm, plan, designate tasks, and perform any necessary team functions outside of communicating digitally from private office spaces,” explains a report by Ghent, a supplier of collaboration products. Such zones can allow for social distancing, while tools such as whiteboards facilitate ideation, communication, and productivity. 39

Flexibility also can play a key role. “You can strike a balance between the structure of a traditional office and the fluidity of an open office plan with a flexible layout,” Ghent adds in another report. “While employees may appreciate having a designated desk, they’ll also enjoy a change of scenery if they need to shake the afternoon doldrums.” Flexible workspaces help employers maximize their property investments with environments that foster collaboration, productivity, and employee engagement. 36

Three factors are important for a hybrid office design, according to a Journal of Design Insight report by architecture and design research lab MLL Design Lab. “The architecture can help foster a collaborative environment by tapping into three key areas: communication, mobility, and productivity. When designs target these, occupants can stay better connected while working toward their end goal,” the report explains. “The main point here is to design environments that are adaptable. In other words, environments that can be reconfigured, or can allow for team brainstorming through state-of-the-art devices. Thus, as a team’s needs change during the different phases of a project, the environment can simultaneously change to meet those needs as the project evolves.” 40

To that end, modular pieces will allow spaces to expand and contract as needed. Furniture also can be used as boundaries to direct foot traffic in circulation patterns that help avoid dense gatherings. Not only can outdoor spaces be equipped to enable work and collaboration, but indoor distancing can be aided by situating social and collaborative spaces in the open rather than in the confines of a conference room. 34

And space dividers can bridge the gap between open office layouts and private offices while adding flexibility. For instance, desktop protection screens or acoustic desktop surrounds can allow employees to create a focused environment as needed. Mobile dividers can facilitate collaboration by enabling areas to be quickly transformed into ad hoc meeting space. Even mobile glassboards can quickly delineate a space and double as collaboration tools during the meeting, enabling participants to jot down ideas or project videos. 36  

Plus, they help visual learners communicate. 41 Not only do dividers, partitions, glassboards, and whiteboards come stationery or mobile (some with heavy-duty, locking casters that roll from carpet to tile), but they also come in a variety of sizes, styles, colors, and materials to complement various environmental designs. Some manufacturers will even customize sizes and other features.

Space dividers
Space dividers can bridge the gap between open office layouts and private offices while adding flexibility.

With infection concerns likely to stay on workers’ minds for the near future, space dividers also serve another purpose. Barriers can enhance both perceived and actual safety as screens or panels separate people and delineate pathways. 34 Harris notes, “Workers must feel safe, and offices may take their cue from schools and restaurants: more spacing between desks or tables and rigid plastic screens between individuals to offer protection.” 25

Mobile glassboards and other dividers also allow employees to position them to avoid glare, which can be particularly useful in offices with daylighting strategies. And cleaning carts can help workers maintain clean surfaces throughout the space.

If a space will be accommodating collaborative as well as focused work, it’s important to address acoustical concerns. Acoustic panels can brighten a space while dampening noise, 36 and some are designed as functional art that can accent a space with color. Acoustic panels can back whiteboards and glassboards to provide sound dampening for others in an open office when groups are collaborating. Easy-to-disinfect acoustic desk surrounds are also available for distraction-free zones in open offices.

And with technology so crucial to today’s workplaces, designers should consider working with a technology integrator. In addition to smart HVAC, sensors for touch-free needs, and fever or crowding alerts, tech is more essential than ever for collaborative work. “Collaboration is heavily based on communication and the choice of the right tools and solutions for effective collaboration,” including solutions for both instant and delayed group communication, Kulakov notes. 3

Solutions may include chat apps, video conferencing, file sharing, project management systems, and cameras in meeting spaces so remote workers can better engage. Yet 98% of home-based meeting attendees experience frustrations during video conferences and 64% of employers are frustrated with the complexity of integrating collaboration technologies from multiple vendors, 28 so tech integrators can help ensure the most effective solutions. 

With hybrid workforces here to stay and effective collaboration essential to business success, architects and designers will need to focus on these needs for workplace design and for changes within their own offices.

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Communication and collaboration are the foundation of the workplace. The new standard for workplace furniture calls for products made of materials that are easy to clean and disinfect, while also matching the design aesthetic of the space. Ghent has been the leader in visual communications for over 40 years, providing products like whiteboards, glassboards, mobiles, and tackboards designed with superior attention to detail. A combination of durable materials and carefully considered construction allow for a warranty fit for a corporate environment. With custom sizes, surface materials, and frames, find the perfect tool that fits your needs and brand from Ghent. Ghent, a GMi Company.



1 Merriam-Webster,

2 Cambridge Dictionary,

3 Kulakov, Mike. Why is Collaboration Important [Workplace Collaboration 101]. Sep. 9. 2020.

4 Merchant, Nilofer. Eight Dangers of Collaboration, Harvard Business Review. Dec. 1, 2011.

5 Deutsch, Randy. How We Can Make Collaboration Work, DesignIntelligence. Feb. 4, 2014.

6 Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. How Collaboration Wins. 2017.

7 Frary, Mark. How collaboration powers productivity. Raconteur. Dec. 15, 2017.

8 Parker, Clifton B., Stanford research shows that working together boosts motivation, Sept. 15, 2014,

9 Tomorrow's Teams Today, The Future of Teaming: Creative, Collaborative and Agile. Project Management Institute. March 16, 2020

10 Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. The Science Behind the Growing Importance of Collaboration. Sept. 6, 2017.

11 Collaborative practices for building design and construction. Designing Buildings Wiki. Oct. 22, 2020. 

12 Voss, Richard. Partners in Design: Why Collaboration Matters in Successful Architecture. LinkedIn. Dec. 5, 2017.

13 Scott, Mike. Better together: why construction needs collaboration to work efficiently. The Guardian. July 17, 2014.

14 Improving Collaboration Between Architects and Engineers. October 2014.

15 The Importance of Collaboration in the Workplace. Nutcache.

16 Watkins, Denny. How Pixar Made Big Group Collaboration Work. Fandom. March 2, 2020.

17 Smartsheet, How Workplace Collaboration Can Change Your Company,

18 Moseley, Corey. 7 Reasons Why Collaboration is Important. Jostle.

19 Gratton, Lynda. How to Increase Collaborative Productivity in a Pandemic, MIT Sloan Management Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. June 8, 2020.

20 DeFilippis, Evan et al. Collaborating During Coronavirus: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Nature of Work. National Bureau of Economic Research. July 2020.

21 Yang, Longqi, et al. How Work From Home Affects Collaboration: A Large-Scale Study of Information Workers in a Natural Experiment During COVID-19, Microsoft Corp.

22 Cotney Construction Law. How COVID-19 is Changing the Technology Landscape of the Construction Industry.

23 Lau, Wanda. How Architecture Firms Are Responding to COVID-19, Architect magazine. March 12, 2020.

24 Savage, Maddy. Coronavirus: The possible long-term mental health impacts, BBC Worklife. Oct. 28, 2020.

25 Harris, Steve. Back to work: how COVID-19 will impact the office, Orange Business Services. Aug. 31, 2020.

26 Mullen, Caitlin. As employers plan return to office, here’s how workers are feeling, Bizwomen. Sept. 25, 2020.

27 Eagle, Liam. Coronavirus Flash Survey: June 2020, S&P Global.

28 Dimensional Research. The Rise of the Hybrid Workplace. October 2020.

29 Boland, Brodie et al. Reimagining the office and work life after COVID-19, McKinsey & Co. June 8, 2020.

30 Pogue McLaurin, Janet. 5 Trends Driving the New Post-Pandemic Workplace, Gensler. Dec. 7, 2020.

31 The Post-COVID Design Studio webinar, i+s. Feb. 8, 2021.

32 Connley, Courtney; Hess, Abigail; and Liu, Jennifer. 13 ways the coronavirus pandemic could forever change the way we work, CNBC. April 29, 2020.

33 Buffer & AngelList. The 2020 State of Remote Work.

34 Together Again: The Future of Shared Spaces in the Office, Steelcase.

35 Reader, Ruth. Health experts think 2021 could feel a lot like 2020—with a few glimmers of hope, Fast Company. Jan. 1, 2021.

36 Designing for Flexible Spaces, Ghent. Oct. 21, 2020.

37 The Post-COVID Workplace: Will Employees Be Safe?, Wharton University of Pennsylvania. July 7, 2020.

38 Gensler Research Institute. U.S. Workplace Survey 2019.

39 Ghent. Returning to the Office white paper. 2021

40 How Architecture Can Promote Occupant Collaboration. MLL Design Lab’s Journal of Design Insight.

41 How to Accomplish Inclusive Design, Ghent. December 2019.