How Can Small Businesses Create Collaborative Learning Environments?

Date: Jun 4, 2014 8:30:00 AM

Maybe you've been hearing more about the importance of sharing knowledge within a small business and breaking down the so-called "silo mentality." So what should happen next? How do you build a true collaborative learning environment where employees can share knowledge, transition seamlessly between working together and working independently, and remain happy and productive to boot?

We'll be honest: if your small business is new to the collaboration mindset, it won't happen overnight. But with thoughtful planning, plenty of support from everyone in your organization, and the right tools, you will eventually be able to enjoy and reap the benefits from a collaborative learning environment.

Focus on these strategies to get started.

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1. Design a flexible office layout.

Think about an office with rows and rows of cubicles. People are compartmentalized and cut off from one another, even their next-door neighbor, thanks to the partitions. Cubicles foster a "heads-down" and "just get it done" approach. But what if some employees don't work well in this environment—what alternatives do they have? And what about the employees who can be productive in this environment—most of the time—but who occasionally want a change of scenery? What if two employees sitting in nearby cubes want to meet "spontaneously" to talk through a problem? And what about the employees who do love their cubes and privacy? Should we forget about their needs in an effort to please others?

A flexible office layout serves all of these different scenarios because it offers employees myriad workspace options and removes communication barriers. It provides plenty of places to "plug in" and/or access wireless networks (the idea being that people can work on the device and space they're most comfortable with).

A flexible office layout doesn't mean you'd ditch private spaces or closed doors altogether. These would still be part of the "menu." So if someone craved daily solitude—or just some quiet time on a random Wednesday afternoon—he or she could retreat to a small room and close the door. If a larger group needed to hash something out, it could opt for a conference room or a cozier "lounge" area with couches or even beanbag chairs on the floor.

Speaking of beanbag chairs, in addition to the physical layout, a flexible office also has flexible furniture. For example, long tables encourage people to sit together and work next to each other (and share ideas and so forth while they're at it). Tables and chairs on wheels make it easy to move around. (If you need some inspiration, search for "flexible office furniture" on Pinterest and browse to your heart's content.)

Now, we know what you might be thinking: this flexible workspace sounds great, but does it actually, you know, make a difference? Are people more productive? Are there any other benefits? If you search online, you'll find plenty of debate, and we believe it's important to understand the potential pitfalls of any office design (a flexible workspace isn't going to be a elixir for all that's wrong within your organization). At the same time, you'll find examples of companies that are thriving in their flexible, collaborative workspaces. We encourage you to read this case study from Cisco, which shows how its collaborative workplace environment reduced real estate costs while boosting employee productivity and satisfaction.

Before you redesign your whole office layout, however, it's important to understand what's currently working, what isn't working, and what might—or might not—be palatable to your employees. This brings us to our next point.

2. Get input from your team.  

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Yes, we're suggesting you ask your employees to collaborate on how to create a collaborative learning environment. :) See, collaborative learning environments aren't a one-size-fits-all solution. What works for Cisco will be different from what works for Facebook, which will be different from what works for the small marketing firm down the street. The nature of your work—the products/services you offer, the rules of engagement, the number of people in your office, the number of different personality types in your office, and so forth—will influence the type of environment you ultimately set up.

For example, if your office is filled with more introverts than extroverts, your flexible office space might feature more nooks and crannies where people can work independently, but without being chained to a cube. Picture a comfy love seat with a footrest where someone could stretch out with her laptop.

This is why you need to take the time to understand your employees and their needs. Get their input on things like… 

  • Office design, including their needs and desires for private spaces vs. group spaces

  • Office furniture, specifically what style, size, and overall type of furnishings make people feel comfortable and productive

  • Their own personal wish lists (ask people to fill in the blank: "If I could have three things that would make my work life easier and more productive, they would be ________, ________ & ________."

  • Rules for shared spaces (e.g. "how to book a conference room" guidelines)

  • Rules for celebrating alone time (in other words, people who work best in seclusion shouldn't be stigmatized—their work methods should be encouraged and protected as well)

3. Make sure the key influencers in your company "spread" the collaboration message.

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We're not suggesting that you talk about the concept every chance you get (which would probably end up annoying people and turning them off). But if your organization is new to collaborative learning, you should be mindful of how you introduce the concept to employees. We humans fear change. Organizational proclamation that you issue without explanation will likely be met with resistance, especially if people don't understand the concept.

Do this instead:

  • Educate people on collaborative learning. Bring people together in a comfortable atmosphere and discuss what collaborative learning is, why the company is embracing it, and what employees can do to help make the transition successful.

  • Make sure the heads of different departments talk it up among their teams. They should "walk the walk" so to speak.

  • Be available to answer all questions. Compile these Q&As and share them with everyone in the company. You don't need to say who asked the question. Just say that someone asked a great question today and you wanted to share your perspective and invite feedback from others. (See how this approach subtly reinforces the collaboration concept?)

  • Acknowledge that you're in this together and that it's a learning process for everyone, which means there may be stumbling blocks along the way.

4. Consider collaboration tools that help reinforce/encourage the concept.

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Keeping people connected and collaborating involves more than simply making an inviting physical space with comfortable furniture. You need to consider the mobile workforce issue and the fact that more and more of us are working from home (or the local coffee shop) at least some of the time every week.

Video chat capabilities, client files saved to the cloud (and that people can access from anywhere on any device), and collaborative CRMs (like Fanhub) all go a long way in keeping people connected and collaborating, regardless of their physical proximity to one another. In fact, a collaborative CRM is a great way to bridge the gap between extroverts and introverts.

For example, in Fanhub, we have a Fanwall, which is a place where closed deals are posted automatically, closed cases can be optionally posted, and announcements for the entire organization can be posted. It's a great way for people across the organization to connect with one another, cheer each other on, comment on newsworthy things, and so forth—and people can do so from the comfort of a private workroom, a collaborative space, from home or the local coffee shop.

 

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Have you experienced a collaborative work environment? What did you like best about it? We love to hear what people think about this topic, so share below in the comments.

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