I am currently writing this entry on a plane in the cramped coach class, where frankly using a laptop is hard work and being creative is a challenge in such limited space. It got me thinking about offices and how they go about using their social spaces. If an office provides a social space (water cooler, coffee-making area, lunch space) what is the function and purpose of the space? Of course, people need places to simply congregate, talk about their weekends and social transactions, but perhaps we could use them for other purposes…
We have two forms of knowledge: explicit (knowledge that can be codified and tacit (knowledge that can not); knowledge that sits inside of our heads. Examples of tacit knowledge include (knowing how to tie up your shoe laces, making a great sale, creating your favourite dish). We need to create opportunities and work spaces in which tacit knowledge can be transferred between colleagues and this is where office social spaces can help.
I visited one company in the UK where they had a fabulous coffee area. It was large with a great espresso coffee maker; the back wall had a plasma screen with rolling news coverage. The seats were comfortable and came in all sorts of bright colours. All in all a great place to sit back, relax, share knowledge but – this was for a space for customers only. The coffee area for the employees was a bleak area, cramped with a solitary sink and racks of mugs. This certainly was not a place for hanging out, sharing knowledge. It was a grab and go back to your desk, kind of place. I did think that this was an opportunity missed. In contrast, I went to an engineering office in Sweden where they had a large red comfortable sofa by the lunch area, with wifi and hot-desk facilities. I made by hosts aware of my astonishment of the facilities, quietly wondering if anyone want back to their desks and do any work. They responded that they wanted employees to sit together either individually or as teams and share knowledge in a comfortable space.
We live in a world full of tacit knowledge. We need to adopt strategies that allow this tacit knowledge to be shared amongst colleagues. Rather than providing dreary coffee and lunch areas, make them into extensions of the work environment, rather than adjuncts.