Thick Presence: Taking Collaboration One Step Further

Workplaces should move from cubicles to serendipity to deep connections

Posted Dec 16, 2014

In today’s modern workplaces, employees’ desks are wherever their laptops happen to be perched. A growing number of companies are surrendering their traditional office set-ups, which have long included individual offices and cubicles farms, in favor of open floor plans, alternative workspaces, and flexible hours. At the heart of this bold change in office design is the idea that tearing down walls (of all kinds) creates more opportunities, for communication, innovation, and collaboration.

More companies are realizing that fostering a strong culture of collaboration sharpens their competitive edge (as the age-old proverb goes: “Two heads are better than one.”). But they shouldn’t be championing surges in collaboration just to wring more productivity out of their employees—they should be doing so because it makes them happier.

"People collisions" 

Last year, a study by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics found that participants ranked “paid work” second to last out of 39 activities. The finding likely surprised no one, but considering that so many people spend a large percentage of their day working (in the US at least, that percentage continues to increase), wouldn’t it be ideal if everyone liked their jobs a bit more?

The study also unearthed one valuable piece of insight worth contemplating: employees do experience happiness at work (equivalent to when they are off the clock), and it happens when they have opportunities to socialize with their colleagues. This makes a lot of sense; we are social beings being after all.

With this in mind, an open floor plan at work—and all the cascading changes it spawns—becomes much, much more than a trendy way to work and increase productivity: it removes the physical barriers (which in turn create psychological ones) that had previously obstructed employees from human interaction at work, taking a toll on their level of contentedness.

Companies like Bloomberg, Square, and Zappos have not only opened up their workspaces, they have also designed them to facilitate deliberate, serendipitous encounters. Tony Hsieh, of Zappos, describes the outcome as “people collisions,” and they can lead to more than just spontaneous exchanges with colleagues. “I think you can create your own luck,” he said. “The key is to meet as many people as you can and really get to know them.”

"I Am Here" Days

This is why more organizations should take human interaction on-the-job even further, moving from minor, unplanned encounters to designing for more meaningful ones, to the concept that our connections with others should be substantial and based on a genuine investment in each other.

Take the example of Priya Parker, founder of Thrive Labs. Parker, her husband, the writer Anand Giridharadas, and a handful of friends gather one Sunday a month for “I Am Here” days. The group meets for eight-hour stretches to explore New York City. Everyone makes the commitment to being “thickly in one place, not thinly anywhere," as Giridharadas puts it. Conversation may flow—or not, but it’s all part of the process; the group values “being” over doing. Given that we are human beings and not robots programmed for ever-increasing rates of production, the chance to stop, breathe, and reflect has become an opportunity we must fight to preserve. Parker and her friends have faith in getting things done by just letting things unfold. The concept may not be revolutionary, but when applied to business, it has the potential to shake the way we view—and do—our jobs.

Thick over thin

Such thick presence flies in the face of leaning in, decisiveness, and speed. But companies like Zappos continue to develop initiatives that promote “thick” over “thin.” For example, the company does not reward the number of customer service calls its representatives complete every hour. Instead, the company rewards representatives for staying on the phone longer, coupled with a “happiness rating.” In doing so, Zappos is essentially communicating to its employees, and to its customers, that the quality of the conversation is what matters, not how quickly and efficiently it is completed.

Imagine employees who are given the opportunity to be thickly present with each other, versus communicating only during scheduled meetings, quick digital exchanges, or chance encounters in the hallway. There’s nothing like being forced out of your shoes and into another’s for a rich perspective by spending time with a colleague for a stint that goes way beyond the protocol of a one-hour meeting—on a consistent basis. Imagine “I Am Here” days at work! It’s the type of experience that can provide a valuable mind shift that is difficult to achieve as the siren song of our comfort zones plays out in the background.

A workspace free of ramparts—the physical and the non—is one step in the right direction. But I suggest we go two steps further by seeking out more thick presence in our professional lives (even our personal ones). It’s an investment in ourselves, and the people around us, that is guaranteed to pay off—and move our internal needle a bit closer to happiness.

To learn more, please see my new book THE BUSINESS ROMANTIC (HarperCollins).