A Space to Act Differently

Jeff Grabill, wearing a lavender shirt, addresses seated faculty during a meeting.

A Space to Act Differently

A discussion on the Hub’s intentional open office design

By Caroline White, Rashad Muhammad, and Nick Noel

In December 2015, the Hub team gathered to discuss the first project of the Hub: the Hub itself. Until then, we had primarily operated through Slack, email, and from multiple locations around campus. We lacked a space where we could work together as a team, and the December meeting marked the first time we worked together in the same physical space. We were asked to engage in a series of design activities that required us to consider who we wanted to be as an organization and the impact we hoped to have on campus. SmithGroupJJR, the facilitators of that meeting, took our responses and the artifacts we created and used them to inform the design of our office space.

What resulted was an open office plan, designed to be a reflection of the open, transparent, and collaborative culture we wanted to build. There would be no individual offices or designated desks. No concrete walls. Limited closed doors. And, although this design was a reflection of who we had said we wanted to be, we were uncertain of how we would work in this space or whether it would truly support our needs.

Jeff Grabill, wearing a lavender shirt, addresses seated faculty during a meeting.

A meeting in the Hub. Photo Cred: Xavier McClair

But the conversations, connections, and collaborations that have occurred, simply because we operate in a space that allows us to easily reach out and find one another, has shown us how essential this kind of environment is to the Hub’s work. Each of the Hub’s projects requires close collaboration with different partners and units around campus, and an array of skill sets, knowledge, and experience to be completed. The openness of the space allows us to easily spark (and occasionally overhear) conversations with colleagues and visitors to our space, leading to organic collisions of knowledge and ideas that can help us resolve problems quickly. Our “be available” time, a three-hour window where our team is asked not to hold formal meetings, encourages creativity, knowledge sharing, and brainstorming sessions, and frequently results in new connections between individuals, teams, and ideas that move projects forward more quickly.

Based on the dynamic nature of our team and the importance of collaboration to our projects, we recognized the importance of making sure our work was visible in a way that would allow others join and contribute to the Hub’s work. Our project boards, located centrally on the main thoroughfare in the Hub, display the descriptions, status, and tasks of each of the Hub’s projects. Monday morning SCRUM sessions, where we give project updates and share important milestones, create opportunities for outside groups to come our meetings and see what we do.

A photo of the project boards the Hub uses to track their projects. White rectangular boards on a gray background. THere are several small pieces of paper meant to track specific action items.

Hub Project Boards

While we enjoyed the amount of collaboration this open space invited, it also presented some challenges that we needed to address. One of these challenges was developing a system to communicate one’s availability to work collaboratively. To remedy this, we created a system which involved using three different colored cups to indicate when we were open to conversation and when we were working independently.

Three cups: green, yellow, and red. Each marked with the firsts letter of the color it corresponds to.

The Hub′s Culture Cups

At the Hub, we were given the opportunity to design a space that reflects the values of the team and our mission. However, for other organizations or institutions, this kind of freedom is not always possible. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions on how to create a collaborative environment, similar to the Hub’s, in an area that may not have been designed for it:

  • Designate a time when people are open to assist others and are committed to remaining in a shared space. This could be signaled electronically, or using a physical artifact.
  • If possible, pick a location to come together and work, either on a group project, or independently.  
  • Designate a time to share projects and ideas. This way, people know what others are working on and can offer advice or assistance.  If you would like to see how we have incorporated this, then drop by our Monday Morning SCRUM. All are welcome to these standup meetings, just let us know you’re coming ahead of time.

The greatest project of the Hub is still the Hub. The space we have created reflects the values of the team and our mission, and has contributed to the creation of our work culture. This culture, and the processes that we use, help us remain transparent and open to collaboration. They also benefit our work, and we believe many aspects of what we have learned could be integrated into other areas and organizations. We hope that others will see us as a model for institutional reinvention. If this reinvention interests you or your organization, feel free to contact us.