Collaborative spaces sure are popular these days.  Personally, I’ve learned to love working in this type of environment.  Get out of your office and co-locate to work with your colleagues.  Share ideas and help each other look at problems differently, brainstorm solutions, or maybe even just practice that big presentation in front of an unbiased pair of eyes. By discussing issues with folks who don’t have your same perspective, it seems easier to be confident in the right solution to problems faster.  Connecting also seems less deliberate and more natural.  It takes full advantage of face-to-face interaction.

But let’s face it, collaboration is only useful if everyone you connect with is in the same city, or can afford the time away from family and other responsibilities to work face-to-face.  Alas, the NASA transporter is still under development… But do you really need one?

Looking beyond the common physical location of collaborators, how can we create these same experiences virtually?  Is it as simple as asking your local college student about the latest social media tool?  How can we deliberately foster online collaboration and retain the great qualities of a face-to-face experience?  What approach can be taken to avoid the risk of a virtual space feeling phony and creating unnecessary barriers?

An article in this month’s Harvard Business Review discusses the concept of three essential “affordances” of successful collaborative spaces: Proximity, Privacy, and Permission.  As surprising as it is logical, the article suggests that these affordances are equally important in the design of a physical or a virtual space, and each should be balanced regardless of the venue or medium.

But seriously, comparing these three affordances against the thousands of online tools and platforms… The technology changes so quickly that there isn’t one design to copy, or one model to follow.  So let’s take a different approach: looking at some real-world examples, can we infer some virtual-world guidance?  If we focus on function we might be on to something…

Proximity:  In the real world this is the coffee cart that you pass on the way from the parking lot.  It’s easy to get to, always open when you need it, and most of the time there’s someone you know nearby. Virtually is there a “place” that online participants go that has some of the same qualities?  For years, email has been that “place”, required to use for document exchange but just as effective to organize a birthday celebration with colleagues.  But just as coffee carts get crowded and prices go up, email inboxes became cluttered with reply-all threads and authentication restrictions – and we started to see alternatives emerge.  Many of us have observed Skype over the years emerge as a means to communicate via video, audio or just a few lines of text – it has become the espresso machine in the break room that everyone chipped in for after the coffee cart raised its prices and cut back operating hours.  It spurs conversations, connects people informally, but can also lead to the only solution for a critical conversation when all other options are inconvenient.  Notable is that both the espresso machine and Skype-style platforms support an element of “peripheral awareness” (i.e. who is around? How available are they to chat right now?), another measure of proximity in both the physical and virtual worlds.

Privacy: Wait a second. I thought we were talking about open collaboration?  It was my first reaction too, but it occurred to me that maybe that’s why it’s so often ignored.  This affordance actually refers to the availability of privacy.  A quiet corner to discuss a sensitive matter with a colleague is sometimes just as important as the availability of that colleague in the first place.  In the virtual as in the physical world, a private corner must be reasonably accessible, always available and be clear in its degree of privacy.  Giving users the option to set their status as “Away” or “Invisible” is a useful means of proving some privacy, as are simple but prominent icons which appear when an online conversation is one-on-one (and not available to a larger audience).  Being overheard by the wrong person in the workplace could be a bad thing, whether in a virtual or physical realm.

Permission:  In my opinion, herein lies our biggest challenge.  The stigma of a collaborative spaces has historically been one of reluctant acceptance by the working ranks, and intense resistance by management (“Why are our employees wasting time chatting at the copy machine when they could be in their cubicles finishing their TPS reports?”).  In recent years however, has it become a common practice for managers to actively encourage the cross-pollination of ideas, and more organic interaction in their organizations. Permission from above is essential in the acceptance of a new way of doing one’s job, but there can be no fear of reprisal if it is to truly take hold.  But is this trend tracking the same virtually?

Historically, the copy machine has been a shining example of giving permission to interact.  Say you and an old friend from a different division are making copies.  You’re still waiting for your copies to finish, so you see no harm in discussing whether or not Shea Weber is the best defenseman in the NHL, which leads to a discussion about what else costs $7.5 million, which leads to a new idea to save money at the agency.  OK, it’s a stretch, but you get the idea.  I’d say that’s a successful interaction, whether or not the money-saving idea holds water.  And it all started from the fact that two people in completely different areas felt that they had permission to talk about what was on their minds, regardless of subject.

The trend to granting permission to interact and collaborate in virtual settings has been much slower to emerge.  In the virtual world there seems to be another layer of resistance.  Not only is there discomfort with the interaction itself, but the medium in which the interaction takes place is also foreign – especially to those observing this interaction from the physical world.

We observe this at a meeting when attendees use a “backchannel”.  One person speaking at a time, plus teleconferencing woes (lack of visual cues, VoIP/cell phone delay) equate to a lot of people who might have an opinion and not be able to voice it.  Online chat forums provide a venue for those opinions without interrupting the speakers in the physical world.  They provide on-demand “copier chatter” and expand it to anyone in the organization.  On the other hand, laptops can distract, typing on a Blackberry can convey disrespect, so taking advantage of these features while in a meeting takes skill (in listening while typing) and tact (in noticing if permission is granted).  What strikes me is this: the very technologies which encourage a new way to interact virtually, have physical qualities that limit our permission to use them.

Affording permission to collaborate in new ways may be the most challenging of the three elements to achieve, but it is also the one that we as leaders have the most control over.  We lead by example, influence corporate policies, and establish workplace norms.  It means putting on everyone’s hats: seeing how each of the roles in the workforce may benefit from virtual interaction, and allowing them to try it out.  Establishing that it’s OK to experiment will allow the privacy and proximity issues to emerge – and it will let the community itself work those issues out.  I mean, isn’t that how it works when we all get together in person?

About Chris

Open Technology Specialist
NASA Headquarters
christopher.e.gerty@nasa.gov