Back in 1998 my business partner and I designed our first workplace, which our landlord immediately dubbed a '21st century Dickensian sweatshop.' 

We had randomly plunked down desks in our rented WWI munitions factory, and called it an office. As we grew, we installed desks wherever we found empty floors, sometimes in rooms or hallways unconnected to the main studio. Our server room was the furnace room, where the IT manager sat in his underwear setting up Exchange accounts. As we worked, we shouted room to room, and ran back and forth to squat at each other's desks. Slowly it dawned on us that in order to work well together, the layout of our workspace was really, really important.

Thus began my learning curve.

Collaboration is not a buzzword. Even if your venture is a startup, dynamic collaboration is a key ingredient keeping employees satisfied and productive. In a 2008 BusinessWeek study of white-collar professionals, 82 percent reported they needed to partner with others throughout the day to get their work done. So you'd better have a good workplace to smooth out that interaction.

That 'sweatshop' I described above evolved into a successful multinational firm employing hundreds of people in several offices, servicing blue chip customers with enviable precision and efficiency. It would not have gotten there without good collaboration hygiene. Along the way, I picked up many hard-gotten lessons in smooth collaboration. 

Today, I run a collaboration and group-calling company called iotum (inc. 5000 #199). You may have used our flagship product, to collaborate virtually. Even though our firm is small, we have several work-at-home people on two continents and two medium-sized offices with fewer than 20 people each. These offices are separated by 1,000 miles and different time-zones. 

Many people enjoy working at "smaller sized" companies for a sense of membership and accomplishment, as opposed to the sometimes cold, large corporate vibe. But when you split a relatively small team across large geographies, you run the risk of losing that collaborative team spirit.

So how can your company foster the type of collaborative environment needed for team-members to stay productive and satisfied at work? Large or small, below are some easy tips-and-tricks that are tested through trial and error, and have served us well. 


A Checklist of Tips to Build a Collaborative Environment

  1. Two separate work rooms/spaces to match personality type
  2. Position collaborators closer to the kitchen and community area
  3. Video Window to other offices through WebRTC
  4. Use tools like Klipfolio for a company dashboard
  5. Two good cameras and mics to buy: Sennheiser SP-20, Logitech C920
  6. for video, screen, audio conferencing
  7. Idea board - a real, paper bulletin board, or sticky note board
  8. A countdown clock for major goal
  9. Put good old whiteboards everywhere
  10. Atlassian tools like Jira and Confluence make everyone's job easier

Aligning Goals - KPI Dashboards

In each of our offices, in Los Angeles and Toronto, we have an information station that features dashboard KPIs.  There are two screens cycling data of CAC, LTV, uptime, usage, etc. All the usual things needed to run a SaaS business. We use Klipfolio for this ( Work-at-home team-members can also gain access.

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Connecting Teams

To bridge the distance with personality, we created a persistent audio/video connection linking our two main offices via WebRTC 24/7. Master chef Thomas Keller does this to connect his kitchens in New York and California. For us, it allows us to have daily stand-;up meetings, informal chats and to develop a sense of fellowship by seeing the other office as if it's simply another room. People wave good morning to each other across the continent as they arrive.

We also try to regularly interchange team members between offices, to establish relationships and remove a sense of distance.

Accommodating Different Work Styles in Open Office Setting

For all the different psychological personality types you find from those Myers-Briggs tests, in my experience workers fall into two categories: quiet and loud. 

For the selfish good of your venture, it's best to let people be themselves. Social people -- often marketing and sales types -- need an environment that allows them freedom to talk.  More heads-down types (some software engineers and designers) require a space that is quiet. They prefer to collaborate silently on their computers.

Cubicle-land is sometimes preferable for the quiet workers. An open studio design is better for the loud workers.  So, if you want good productivity, you need two defined spaces. If not, then at least two zones. 

Teknion designs affordable cubicles for your quiet workers, and Ikea desks are great for nearly everyone else.

Facilitating Communication

How do you get people of different orientations - the quiet and the loud - to communicate effectively amongst themselves and between each other?

You need two types of meeting rooms - one that can act as a traditional boardroom and big work table, and another that is a place to sit with a cup of coffee and brainstorm.

Your boardroom should be fitted out with good conference technology and video screens. The Sennheiser SP-20 is a high-quality speaker-mic that is a cinch to set up. The Logitech C920 is a high-def and affordable video camera.

Your brainstorming room should have comfy chairs and no big table.

At Your Desk

At your desk, you are always logged in. So you should always be connected. Like the video window, iotum team members regularly connect face-to-face for meetings using for web meetings, video conferencing, dial-in conferencing and screen-sharing throughout the day, making the distance between peers seem minute. We use our own asynchronous chat and p2p calling tools as part of dogfooding our product development, but Skype works. We really like Atlassian's suite of products for project collaboration, especially Jira and Confluence. 

Encouraging Social Interaction

Every office needs a space for community. Often the kitchen is the social space. If you can, put your social, loud people close to the kitchen. Their ideas come from interactions with people, so the more interaction the better. The heads-down people are only distracted by random interactions.      

Whether you've got a startup in an old warehouse, or are a branch of a large multinational, collaboration is more than just getting people to talk shop. It should pervade the very design of your office. Charles Eames (the guy who somehow turned morphine into a comfy chair) said designing for the need is the primary purpose of design. In all elements of your office layout, flow and operation - right down to the digital tools you use - you need to design for collaboration.

Additional Best Practices

  • Sometimes paper and white boards are better than digital tools to get people collaborating and imagining together.
  • Working on a product launch? Use a board with big paper numbers on your workroom wall showing a countdown to launch. Dramatically, change the number on the countdown each morning.
  • An old countertop tilted on its side makes a great idea board. Team  members can paste up clippings and Post-its of ideas. Democratize ideas.
  • Use whiteboards for other checklists and big team notes - so everyone can see each teams' progress. Put these in a prominent location.
  • Paint walls with a dry-erase substance like IdeaPaint so your team can collaborate immediately everywhere. Hallway conversations became opportunities for lightning to strike. Think of John Nash working out his theorems on the windows of Princeton.


Correction: An earlier version of this piece misidentified the owner of IdeaPaint. The company is independently owned.