19/01/2017 07:17 GMT | Updated 20/01/2018 05:12 GMT

Office Space: The Final Frontier

I write this blog from the corner of my shared office, mindful of a conversation overheard this week among one of the support teams. They recently took on a few extra staff and as such need to change where they sit in the open plan part of our office. Excerpts of the discussion are as follows:

"It'll be nice to be able to speak face-to-face instead of back-to-back."

"You do realise everyone is going to have to walk further to get tea, right?"

"I won't be able to think if I have to sit over there. It's so noisy!"

In many ways, these light-hearted exchanges capture much of what I think about when it comes to collaborative working, and how so much of it can be enabled - or thoroughly stifled - by the environments we create for ourselves.

In the Oliver Wyman London office and in client buildings all over the world, the same challenge is evident: encompassing and enabling a wide enough variety of working styles and needs.

Typically, I see four kinds of office zoning: The Office Hideaways (VIP access only); The Open Plan Desert; The Never-Available-When-You-Need-Them Meeting Rooms; and the Food Aggregation Space (or 'lunch room' for short).

In recent years, my office has recently introduced what I call The Sensory Deprivation Booths - tiny, walled, quiet desks without telephones - and The Not-quite-right-for-Superman Booths - soundproofed booths for confidential calls which are, for some reason, floor-to-ceiling transparent.

As an introvert, I fully embrace the benefit of having a hideaway where I can put my head down to get work done in peace and quiet, especially now I'm senior enough to have an office door. However, I fight against this preference every day.

Being out in the shared spaces offers me a direct line into the mood of the office and my teams; corrects errors before they escalate; and helps me understand my colleagues better and tap in to a diversity of thinking to support my tackling some of the trickiest business challenges.

The argument for office spaces to better enable productive and collaborative working surely can't be stronger than at some of my clients: major financial institutions.

In these businesses, leading authorities such as the World Economic Forum agree that the various types of risks to which banks are vulnerable - market risk, credit risk, and counterparty risk, to name but a few - are more interconnected now than ever, cannot and should not be viewed in isolation (report).

Knowing this, it is counterintuitive that they persist in keeping the various teams physically separate - either in different parts of the office or in different buildings entirely.

I've seen firsthand the speed at which key projects can accelerate if all the stakeholders occupy the same room: one bank I worked with succeeded in building the initial database to fuel a world-leading liquidity analytics service in just three months. Under the old conditions with everyone on different floors and in different rooms, it could have taken at up to a year.

We operate in a business world where small, incremental changes are often all that stands between us and direct competitors. In this scenario, realising the advantages of collaborative working and acting on them has the potential to generate a real competitive edge.

As for me, I set out to collaborate with the 500 people in our London office to discover if there was any one thing that would make their working environment better. Along with my leadership colleagues we did an ePoll at a town hall last year. The result? Seventy percent of those who responded used just one word: cake.

And that's why I like the people I work with so much.