There’s great power in diversity, which is why companies often see the best results whenever they are successful in melding together the various talents available to them. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy as it seems to bring the theory into action.

However, it doesn’t have to be so difficult, especially when your environment is designed to foster employee collisions.  We recently had the opportunity to connect with Patricia Kammer, a senior design researcher on Steelcase’s WorkSpace Futures team, to gain insight into what makes these impromptu interactions so meaningful, and discuss how organizations can plan for truly collaborative collisions.

There’s significant momentum around the idea that ensuring that employees have the opportunity to collide can foster collaboration. Why are these employee collisions important?

Kammer: The reason we want to encourage these encounters is based on how ideas flow through organizations. In today’s increasingly complex world, teams are faced with projects that require a diversity of thought to succeed. Connecting with others is a natural way to share information, build on ideas and explore different perspectives. While we have improved ways to access information using digital means, people still need that person-to-person contact. It allows for team members to understand the nuances, recognize interpretations and gain new perspectives.

What does it look like when we design for collisions?

Kammer: We can really take inspiration from city planning, especially the role of the town squares.  They’re central places that supported impromptu interactions and open market shopping. If you move this context into a work environment, it translates into things like work cafes where there is a twist on food and work while supporting multiple activities. Or a neighborhood kitchen, for example, that serves as a hub for multiple teams to again have chance encounters.

While these crossroads or destinations are important, it’s equally important to address the pathway to these spaces. Consider the scenic overlooks along our highways and the role they play in helping pull travelers off the busy road for an opportunity to explore. Applying this to the workplace means thinking of ways to pull people out of traffic with natural pull-off zones along the way to support and encourage conversations.

When we design these spaces, we need to encourage the likelihood of collisions. Is it supporting the behavior around what happens when two people bump into each other? Is it simply a verbal conversation? Or will people want to take it deeper? How long will these encounters take? Do you want to provide opportunities to take a seated posture? Do you want to enable them to whiteboard an idea out? These are all aspects companies need to consider.

Where are organizations missing the boat?

Kammer: While not a glaring mistake, businesses who are global in nature with multiple sites across the world need to consider how to fully support a distributed team. We know a lot about how to design these spaces for teams that are collocated. It is increasingly important, however, to understand how to extend this environment when teams are distributed. For instance, I regularly bump into a lot of people at the work café. However, the likelihood that I would have an impromptu encounter with a teammate in Europe is slightly different.  We need to consider how to most effectively support and understand the need for encounters when we are not physically located together.

It speaks to the notion of the fluidity of ideas and how you share ideas across the organization. Whether internal partners, distributed team members, or external contributors you want to make sure the fluidity of ideas across a project remains orchestrated. We are often relying on other means such as Google Docs to connect the team within a digital context.

Do you see video collaboration playing an important role, especially with distributed team members?

Kammer: If we think about what enables a team to be successful, it oftentimes comes back to trust between individuals on the project. It’s a consequence that requires transparency and trust to move the gamut forward.

Video conferencing can play a significant role in increasing the speed of trust, primarily because you can see the look on the other person’s face – whether its understanding or puzzlement – and interpret body language including what they were doing when they weren’t speaking. This is crucial as we see the diversity (engineering, marketing, design, research, finance, etc.) of teams coming together with unique thoughts.

People in each of these disciplines speak a different language, but video collaboration enables you to see that and creates greater alignment.

What’s next? How does this continue to evolve?

Kammer:  As we look to converge diversity of thought with a diversity of place, I think the evolution of the organization starts with the social network. The social network allows people to connect not just with one another, but to the right information at the right time. It enables team members to see what others are working on and make contributions when appropriate.

Collisions deal with in-between spaces that help the teams grow, mature and improve. However, we shouldn’t stop at the in-between space. There needs to be a shift in trying to understand in-between time as well. Building out an enterprise social network can serve as a bridge of time that enables you to know what is going on with others inside the enterprise, without physically sitting next to a team member.