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May 24, 2017 /UX/UI Design /

Why Collaboration is the Future of Work and What This Means For Designers Going Forward

It is during the two-hour commute to his San Francisco office that Oliver Wenz, director of user experience at Cisco Systems, first begins pondering how fundamentally flawed the North American system of work is.

A self-described non-traditional worker, Wenz despises conventional offices and the day-to-day lifestyle that comes with them. He sees the energy of the commute as “a complete waste of a lot of brains that sit there in a chasm of being unable to do anything else.” He says it’s ecologically and economically “just wrong.”

He is instead drawn to this new world of work where collaboration reigns supreme and creativity and innovation are not forced to fit into the confines of a 9 to 5 work day, a siloed job, or a tiny, segregated cubicle. He turns to companies like Google as an example and sees the tech industry as the leader of the pack, questioning the conventions of the typical office and creating spaces that weren’t seen in the decades before.

This, he says, is the future of work.

“You have the new world of opportunities where all these rules do not apply anymore. If you look at the Facebooks, the LinkedIns, the Instagrams, even the GoPro camera, these were all things that all the big companies had before, but they never got it right and you wonder why they missed it,” he said.

“There’ s a driver behind this. Most of the big dollar gains in terms of investments have been from companies that have nothing to do with the typical office as we know it, or company as we know it. It’s a bunch of people that hang out in the dorm room and then figure things out and create billion dollar companies. I think there’s a lot of waste and redundancy in terms of how we work.”

The Three Keys to Collaboration

Wenz has been taking notes. As part of his role at Cisco, he is working on collaborative tools to try to tackle this problem, something he says most companies haven’t been able to nail quite yet. He has identified three reasons why collaboration is more successful now than ever before. They are:

  1. An insane acceleration of technology that is occurring at a pace we can barely keep up with, even those who work in design and tech.
  2. Democratization of production assets, specifically open source code that has empowered designers to find and share solutions. This also refers to access to knowledge. Anyone with an Internet connection can learn just about anything they want these days.
  3. A convergence of skills that have inspired people to take on bigger risks and challenges—together.

“You see teams that are very diverse getting things done at a pretty epic scale,” Wenz said. “Think about any of the movements like SpaceX; flying to space. The Mars thing is probably not far away. These are really big challenges that people take on. The routes to solve these problems are really diverse and to get anything done in that framework you need to have collaboration at the core. You have to figure out what is driving good collaboration and what you can do about it.”

Innovation through Collaboration

Wenz and I are speaking on a video call. On the white board behind him, he begins to draw a diagram. At the top there’s a big C for collaboration, and stemming from it are the three components of contemporary collaboration.

  1. Space
  2. Tools
  3. Culture

Space refers much to what we discussed above, the need to work in an environment that fosters collaboration. “I think to solve this issue of empathy you have to open up and it starts at the space you operate in. the space itself is actually expressive of how your company thinks and acts,” he said.

Tools refer to the collaborative tools that allow team members both in office and remote from around the world to connect. He favors high definition video platforms when it’s not possible for that face-to-face connection, but also values instant messaging for its easy, understandable “ping pong” style of communication. It also refers to the tools you use in your day-to-day work. Frustrating tools make for a frustrating work experience.

Culture is the fun one. He believes that to truly be collaborative, workers need to have a shared experience. This is especially key when everyone is from a different department or has different expertise. “I think for me that is actually the key,” he said. This could be as extreme as team zip-lining trips, something that gets everyone outside of their comfort zone, but it doesn’t have to be. “This way [the shared experience] becomes meaningful because it forces everyone to participate and get a little bit uncomfortable. That really overtime gels the team pretty well.”

Wenz is not alone in his theories. A 2015 study on workplace innovation conducted by Google For Work and Raconteur found that collaboration “has a fundamental impact on business innovation, performance, culture and the bottom line.” Seventy-three percent of the 258 c-suite executives surveyed agreed that collaboration and flexibility would make their organization more successful, and more than half ranked collaboration as the number one factor that would influence their profitability.

“Collaboration is the key competitive advantage for large companies today. If they cant figure this out and stay in their silos, they’ll be dead by tomorrow,” Wenz said.

The UX Advantage

So how does UX fit into all of this?

The point of creating a collaborative environment is to use shared experience to encourage the possibility of coming up with ideas and methods no one has thought of before, but at the end of the day it’s the user who determines your success. When a user appreciates the work you’ve done, embraces using it and is willing to pay for it, that’s when collaboration’s true value can be seen.

“Good UX always has a high degree of empathy for users, and I think that’s where UX can get into the driver’s seat to drive product requirements, product direction and basically help drive product engineering and product management to shape that vision,” Wenz said.

Collaborate and iterate and perhaps success too can be yours.

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