Collaborative Environments: the Design Process

With collaborative work and learning taking place beyond the office, healthcare and education interiors must follow suit


We are currently living in an era that has been called the “Age of Transformation,” a moment in history that marks a fundamental transition to the fully global, more sustainable world of the 21st Century. This transition impacts how, when, and where companies do business. As such, companies are shifting to collaborative cultures, utilizing resources in entirely new ways to improve efficiency and stay nimble. Best-selling author Daniel Burrus, a self-proclaimed “Innovation Expert & Global Futurist,” says we’ve hit a turning point in which our jobs are no longer changing; rather they’re transforming1. As a result, we must modernize the way we approach process, not change the process itself.

This imposes a cultural shift that has created a ripple effect beyond the corporate office environment, where the trend toward open and collaborative workspaces has already taken root. Specifically, the healthcare and education markets have followed suit and embraced a more collaborative approach to both work processes and facility design. Designers who can effectively translate the programmatic requirements of collaborative work modes into physical spaces will be well-positioned to help their clients transition smoothly into this new workplace paradigm.

a prescription for healthcare: balancing needs
While collaboration has been hailed as a kind of magic bullet for improving workplace efficiency in the corporate sector, it’s important to note that effective workplace environments are never one-dimensional. They are often complex spaces that require a careful balancing act between different types and modes of work. According to Gensler’s 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey (WPS)2, the most effective, productive workplaces are those that balance focus and collaboration, providing employees with space to work intensely on individual tasks, and to gather with colleagues to brainstorm and work together.

As the Gensler study concluded, “Our survey findings demonstrate that focus and collaboration are complementary work modes. One cannot be sacrificed in the workplace without directly impacting the other. We know that both focus and collaboration are crucial to the success of any organization in today’s economy”4.

Perhaps nowhere are these corresponding work requirements needed more than in the healthcare industry, which is undergoing transformation on an unprecedented scale. Not only do medical facilities need to balance individual workspaces and areas built for collaboration, but they also must protect patient privacy to meet Health Insurance Portability and Information Act (HIPPA) requirements. Spaces that are designed with flexibility in mind can help them meet these often competing requirements.

As a result, many healthcare providers today—whether retrofitting or building from scratch—plan around a central communication center, where work areas are open to any employee, regardless of the level or specialty. Exam rooms are placed around the periphery creating easy access back and forth from the common work area and can easily be transformed for other uses when medical assistants wheel in carts, for example. Private meeting spaces can also be placed along the periphery of the facility—areas that are not dedicated workspaces or rooms set up for specific patient needs. Rather, they are flex rooms—or “hot desking” spaces—that can be used if a doctor needs privacy to counsel a family, or if staff members need to make private phone calls, for example.

In addition to the common work spaces, surveys reveal that healthcare employees at all levels now prefer shared lounge areas as well. In the past, healthcare facilities featured separate dining and relaxing areas for doctors, nurses, and other staff. But regardless of specialty or title, medical staff members today prefer a shared space that feels more like a restaurant or lounge so they can mingle.

Flexible spaces even extend beyond staff areas for many healthcare facilities as they continually work to improve the patient experience—a key element of the Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) in which hospitals are reimbursed based on patient satisfaction rather than services rendered3. For example, some children’s hospitals no longer provide treatment in the patient rooms and instead designate them as “safe havens,” where patients can rest and relax with family where they’re shielded from the stress of their medical concerns. Small office areas outside of patient rooms can be flexible enough to give shots, take tests, and more importantly, allow patients to remove themselves from treatments when they go back to their personal spaces.

Healthcare administrators are finding that patients thrive in these communal spaces, and oftentimes, they don’t want to be in private rooms (contrary to popular belief). Cancer patients, for example, want to have the ability to converse with each other, learn from each other, and support each other. They don’t want to be isolated. And healthcare providers are finding that these collaborative spaces also enhance healing.

Beyond the clinical setting, another reason the shift to collaborative work and space design has made its way into the healthcare market is due to the desires and expectations of the next generation of medical workers. As Millennials are applying for open positions, many of them are asking potential employers about how they collaborate, what the workspaces look like, and what types of technology the workspaces feature.

Millennials—the future of our workforce—expect this type of workplace environment because they are non-linear thinkers, and they are accustomed to keeping constant connectivity to their social circles. The members of this generation are keenly aware of what their friends are doing and thinking at any moment, and are able to instantly receive feedback on their own activities and more through social media. Working in an environment that isn’t collaborative would be foreign to them, and healthcare providers are increasingly catering to the needs of this emerging, highly collaborative labor force.

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