Colocation: more than shared space

Face-to-face collaboration transforms how your team works

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Remote, bad. Co-location, good.
I’m an avid proponent of the co-located teams and companies. I believe that people work best when they can see, hear and even smell each other. Given today’s technological advances, it’s easy for teams, organizations and full companies to function without this face-to-face exchange. Whole companies are started remotely and this flexibility is toted as a benefit and a perk to potential employees. However, given both remote and co-location structures with my design team has only cemented my predilection for having everybody sit (or stand) in the same space.

Dozens of productivity studies, economic reports and industry best practices have argued between remote and co-location as the better choice. Yet, I’ll point to one reason to keep your team co-located: the emotional bond created when you meet a person face-to-face. Nothing can replace this. I’ve had the fortune to finally meet people who I’d only worked remotely with for months. There was an immediate shift in the way we talked and listened to each other moving forward. The level of productivity and efficiency that ensued afterwards can’t be measured, and there was a massive change in the tone of voice and the speed with which the team delivered work after that initial in person meeting.

Why working face-to-face works.
There are many physiological explanations for why this personal empathy occurs, and I’ll leave those details to the experts in that field. Whenever you come in contact with another person, a conversation begins without uttering a single word. Body language, facial expressions and posture help establish the groundwork for the ensuing conversation. These intangibles cannot be mimicked otherwise.

Co-location works because it forces you to engage — even if uncomfortable at first. In-person exchanges make you deal with the human relationships that are paramount for strengthening your ability to work well with others. Having a physical presence when you need to discuss difficult issues or obstacles minimizes misunderstandings and maximizes empathy with the other person. How many misunderstandings would be avoided if we hung up the phone or messaging app and spoke face to face! Don’t even get me started with how many social problems would disappear if we just looked at each other and listened.

While technology can bring us closer, it more often drives us apart. It can enable us to work with people in the opposite corner of the globe day or night, but in doing that, it removes the possibility of building a true sensory connection with somebody. Technology should augment and enhance the way we work, not replace it entirely.

Remote collaboration is like eating a lukewarm burger with soggy fries. Sure, you’re eating food but not in the way it was meant to be.

So, heat that burger up and re-fry those fries! Go for the full experience.

An empowered team.
Sharing a space also gives your team the opportunity to create a common language, share inside jokes, and get to know each person for who they are. People are more than what they do for work and dedicating some time to learn what motivates them outside of the office goes a long way towards making them feel included and important, and empowers them to do what they’re great at and enjoy doing it.

A constant dialogue between teammates builds a common understanding and establishes your team’s unique set of rules. How do they prefer to work? Do they need silence or prefer a lively environment? What’s the line between easy access to them and constant interruptions? Do they want to decorate their space? These answers become your team’s rule of law and they are easier to abide by (and break or modify) when a simple look can say it all. At IBM Studios, my team is known for our horrible puns, busy whiteboard of ideas and our handful go-to phrases. These play a vital role in creating our common personality and helping spread a sense of community in the office.

The power of walking over.
My design team, and the people we work with, have thrived since we’ve all been co-located. In the past, our Development and Management teams were spread across multiple timezones and countries. Scheduling headaches and meetings during personal time was the norm, but efficiency did not increase. Now, design, dev and management teams sit in two neighboring buildings. This proximity has transformed our collective process in three main ways:

  1. We meet more frequently, in shorter to-the-point meetings, and we air our dirty laundry face-to-face
  2. Our collaborative design space inspired development to remove physical walls and re-organize their office, and they are feeling the benefits
  3. Teams go to lunch together, plan happy hours and run broader meetings in one space, leading to more smiles and donuts

These are but a few of the notable improvements from having dozens of people work and move within a common environment. We’re still working on ways to work faster and better together, and we can now figure how to do that together. Put us in a room (leave us some food) and lock the door, and we’ll do more in 30 minutes than we could in two hours remotely.

Co-location also reduces inefficiencies. Having your team(s) together helps replace those unproductive meetings with shorter conversations that work best unscheduled. Got a new great idea or concern on your mind? A quick brainstorm or private conversation can easily happen in the spur of the moment. No planning necessary. Making ourselves openly accessible and readily available to others — and knowing that they can do the same — is a great way to build trust and respect with the people you work closest.

Why this matters.
There is inherent camaraderie and respect when people make the conscious decision to be present for each other.

Showing up means something. Complimenting someone’s outfit, asking how their weekend was, or grabbing a cup of tea with someone are the little things that just don’t happen over Slack.

These details, these intangibles are the basis for personal communication and the catalyst for developing the human connections necessary to run efficient teams and productive companies. Without it, we’re just voices across phone lines or digital renditions of our true selves. We owe it to ourselves, and our teams, to stay humanized as technology grows and makes us less dependent of others. Maybe it’s me, but I’ll take a traffic jam over working from home for the opportunity — and blessing — of seeing, hearing, smelling and laughing with my team.

Esteban Pérez-Hemminger is a product team Design Lead at IBM Studios in Austin. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Puerto Rican, avid collaborator, pun aficionado and designer with a habit of failing. Currently: Senior Interaction Designer @ Google, Austin TX

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