Social media – design collaboration via digital means?

Water cooler by Jason Pratt, on FlickrIn my last role I used to spend a lot of time working with remote teams – often remote from me and sometimes from each other. Over time I realised that one of the biggest challenges in working this way was the lack of informal “overheard” conversations. For example I might be briefing one person in the team on a task but start talking generally about how the meeting I had that day went, someone else in the team sitting near by might overhear and join the conversation with a new idea. This lack of proximity and informal collaboration is also a traditional problem in the relationship between interior designers or architects and engineers. The question is, is it possible to replicate this casual form of interaction digitally?

Social media is frequently described as the new water cooler, just one recent example can be found here. HP’s internal social media platform was also called WaterCooler.  Although I have to say – the image I found looks just the opposite doesn’t it – and I’ve always found coffee to be more popular than water! Regardless of your drink preference, is social media the current or future digital means for casual work interactions and collaboration though?

Personally, I found social media useful on certain occasions – I became the first person in my company to post my redundancy on yammer the internal network – for me this meant a lot of people found out in hours rather than weeks (and I also had posted personal contact details).  However on a day to day basis it wasn’t a tool I used extensively. I found instant messaging to be much more useful, but the limitation is that it is generally a one on one conversation. The guy that sits next to me can’t overhear and put his 2 cents in (this privacy is in fact often becomes the reason people chose messaging as the means of communication).

However, I still don’t believe that social media can completely replace the informal, overheard, in person element of communication. Firstly by typing something into a social media site it is much more of a deliberate sharing action. Secondly I find that people are less likely to respond. If I speak to you in person or on the phone you are more likely to say something than in front of a large meeting. If I instant message you rather than email you, you are more likely to respond partially because of that annoying flashing but also just social convention. If I post something on social media (or to this blog!) it has become a combination of email and the large meeting – for most of us it becomes too public, too deliberate and just too much effort to respond with a comment. Perhaps partially because we know that if we start commenting on everything we will be there all day – and maybe no one will notice – unlike if we spend all day at the water cooler or coffee shop!

I think the issue of informal communications and collaborations remains a challenge to be solved in order to fully realize the benefits of working remotely and globally. I started to think about the part that videoconferencing could play in this and then I came across this suggestion:

“One fix, he suggested, could be a screen set up in your office space that shows a colleague who is working somewhere else. It could enable the types of informal conversations that often lead to fruitful ideas, and maybe “frost up and go into privacy mode” when that person takes a meeting or a phone call.”

This came from yet another blog on the workplace of the future, but its certainly the first time I’ve seen this suggestion (and I do have quite a lot of time to read blogs right now…hey its research for you right?) http://www.eweek.com/mobile/intel-offers-an-image-of-the-workplace-of-the-future/

I started thinking about this one, maybe this means the whole office will become like a giant telepresence room where half the office is a mirror image of somewhere else. Or maybe through one window we see one place (say Perth) and through another we see another place (the engineers down the road). For anyone not familiar with telepresence – right now its typically limited to meeting rooms.  Traditionally you have 2 identical rooms, each one is only half a table though, the other side is a video screen. Its still pretty expensive so not that commonly installed. The technology has been around since about 2006 but doesn’t seem to have made much impact – probably due to the cost and the need for the 2 identical locations.

Today I found another alternative on – that holograms will be the next big thing.  (though I do admit this was posted to you tube in 2010 so obviously I’m behind the times)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAIDXzv_fKA
Maybe we all sit in different places but have our holograms working in a shared project office?  This hologram would seem to have more potential as an architectural or engineering collaboration tool. because not only can we share ourselves, we can share our models as holograms too.

All of this moves away from social media as a solution, and back towards physical solutions – even if they are driven by technology, they are still attempting to replicate a physical environment. Do we need a physical environment to collaborate best or is social media already taking over and replacing this? Will this perhaps change as the workplace demographics change?

What is your experience worth social media in the workplace? Do you think social media is the new water cooler? What are your success stories (or horror stories) of using social media for collaboration in interior design or architecture? Do you want your engineers (or interior designers or architects) right there with you? If we were having this conversation in person would you comment?

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