Capitalising on diversity of thought in a collaborative space

Flexible workspaces have evolved into a hub for the exchange of intellectual utterances - namely ideas, feedback and perspectives.

COLLABORATIVE spaces have long been associated with nimble tech startups, millennial CEOs, and creative freelancers in need of a steady WiFi connection.

Featuring a conducive working environment and packed to the brim with perks and add-ons to boost productivity, collaborative spaces have quickly become the intellectual playground of young upstarts and trailblazers.

Swanky yet professional, collaborative spaces have much more to offer than gym memberships and discounts at upscale eateries. They provide a community of sorts for the people who use its service.

Occupants in shared offices tend to come from all walks of life, spanning diverse ages, industries, backgrounds, levels of experience and areas of expertise.

As a result, these flexible workspaces have evolved into a hub for the exchange of intellectual utterances - namely ideas, feedback and perspectives.

In Singapore, collaborative spaces occupy nearly four million square feet in net lettable area of all available commercial spaces. These figures, which are accurate as at 2019, have tripled since 2015 - an indication that more people (and businesses) are seeing the value of flexible spaces.

Companies that have made the conscious decision of moving teams into communal working spaces have touted access to diversity of thought as a major consideration.

Avoiding the echo chamber

Even within corporations that attempt to "encourage" diversity, there is a degree of uniformity which tends to be maintained when making new hires.

HR departments have internal parameters that determine whether prospective employees are a "cultural fit" - which is code-speak for whether or not a new hire will be able to adapt to the dominant company culture.

Ironically enough, with everyone in a big organisation adhering to the prevailing belief system, diversity of thought is unconsciously quashed.

This is not something which occurs on purpose, but rather by virtue of unconscious bias coupled with employees spending long stretches of time in the same space, with little interaction with external individuals or organisations.

If established companies are committed to promoting greater diversity among employees, collaborative spaces could be a realistic solution to expand horizons and diversity metrics.

There has been a wave of large enterprises setting up camp in shared working spaces.

Microsoft moved a 300-strong sales team into several WeWork locations in New York, cutting down valuable time spent on commutes and seeing an increase in overall employee productivity and happiness.

Ensuring non-conformity of thoughts in a space powered by technology

At its very core, collaborative spaces seek to transform office spaces and re-engineer the way professionals interact.

For multinational firms wishing to foster innovation and creativity among staff, occupying a shared office space would nurture the cross-pollination of ideas between employees, startups and freelancers which coexist in the space.

In shared spaces, technology has a major role to play by ensuring efficient use of the space, flexibility to scale workspaces according to business needs, as well as availability of digital platforms and software that promote productivity and connectivity - otherwise known as "service-as-a-space" model.

Dissolving barriers between global conglomerates, lean startups and solo entrepreneurs can lead to greater harmony between working professionals.

Imagine the possibilities that could emerge from a simple conversation between an early-career CEO, the head of marketing for an MNC, and a freelance creative designer.

Collaborative spaces are ideal for events, talks and lectures, which provide for the frictionless trading of ideas and thoughts.

Need some private time? Shared workplaces are also equipped with private spaces such as conference rooms or tucked-in areas which accommodate either smaller groups or solo workers who value peace and quiet.

A truly diverse bunch of people utilising the same space would automatically result in diverse thoughts - and different ways of doing things - and corporate firms have much to gain from their employees being exposed to a variety of ideas, notions, and beliefs.

For instance, if a marketing team has been struggling to solve a particularly complex business problems, and are in need of a fresh, unbiased perspective, the flexibility and openness of a collaborative space would allow them instant access to constructive criticism.

Additionally, you can always rely on technology to provide you with extra insight - shared workspaces are equipped with integrated tools that rely on data and analytics to boost creativity.

At the very least, you might stumble across a different way of brainstorming ideas or drumming up business, which you could then adjust to for your own purposes.

Working in proximity to entrepreneurs and inventors would allow employees to tap into a valuable reservoir of perspectives, empowering them to examine existing biases and solve particularly intricate issues.

Business owners trying to help their employees make the most of their day will delight in finding that collaborative spaces come with advanced meeting tools and detailed workplace analytics for greater efficiency.

Here's what Monica Anne Lie, founder of The Ordinary Co, had to say about collaborative spaces: "Being in a collaborative space has encouraged me to take risks and explore alternative marketing channels through pop-up stores with the Creators Market.

"This led to greater exposure to other brands, which in turn generated meaningful business collaborations that might not have otherwise come about. Having a community to tap into for the dual purposes of networking and socialising has greatly enriched our mindset, and changed the way we run our business."

There is also the advantage of strong social ties which are borne out of working side-by-side in a shared space, thereby reducing isolation and the feeling of loneliness.

Employees get to form friendships and partnerships which go beyond solely being functional or professional in nature.

In fact, 87 per cent of professionals stated that they socialised with their fellow employees, with 54 per cent even meeting them on the weekends.

Companies no longer need to consider engaging only those malleable enough to conform to the incumbent corporate culture.

The sheer variety of skill, talent, and experience that can usually be found in collaborative spaces can serve as a fertile recruitment ground for corporations wanting to equip themselves with the best and brightest.

Encouraging healthy dissent among co-workers, and actively seeking out those who are likely to disagree with the status quo will naturally compel a business to scrutinise its working processes, and make better corporate decisions.

  • The writer is managing director of WeWork Southeast Asia.