For Teamwork, an Innovative Space Inspires Collaboration Anywhere

August 2018
Topics: Human Resources Management, Technological Innovations, Management (General), Collaborative Decision Making
Cutting across both geographic and generational boundaries, MITRE's Collaboration Spaces initiative empowers a diverse and far-flung workforce to speak, brainstorm, and get on the same page—without having to be in the same room.
MITRE team working in a collaborative space.

Some people conduct business the traditional way—in their offices at their company’s headquarters. Others work remotely. Seasoned veterans are used to conference rooms, where one person talks and everyone else listens. Meanwhile, twentysomethings who grew up in a more interactive world, think nothing of sneaking peeks at their laptops or wireless devices during meetings.

Workforces are trying to reconcile these conflicting technological and demographic trends, but at MITRE, striking the right balance is particularly important. In the words of MITRE's Doug Phair, "From what I've observed, external companies are seen as hired hands brought in to execute something. But we're seen as part of the team. We're tied to our federal government sponsors at the ground level, at the very beginning of projects, as a trusted adviser."

That means we must foster an environment in which employees and our partners in the federal government, industry, and academia can work together and share knowledge freely, no matter where they are. Innovative ways to collaborate are nothing new at MITRE, but the Collaborative Spaces project takes it to a new level. With Collaborative Spaces, teams don't just meet—they create.

"Collaborative Spaces was born from the premise of space to attract and retain folks, plus space to connect MITRE together to do brainstorming and project war room-type stuff," says Phair, who led the MITRE team that developed Collaborative Spaces. "That was the transformation we helped push over the past few years."

One Generation Learns from Another

Building on the work of MITRE's Enterprise Computing, Information, and Security Innovation Program (which provides funding to employees to explore ideas for innovative projects), Phair formed a team that examined how MITRE could modernize its workspaces—changing them from briefing rooms to war rooms. Achieving that goal required thoughtful redesign. The team drew on a wide range of expertise—human resources, information technology, and corporate real estate.

But the most valuable feedback of all may have come from the usability studies that involved employees—including the next generation.

One summer, Phair put up a time-lapse camera in the Collaborative Systems Lab, located on MITRE’s Bedford, MA. campus. There were chairs, couches, movable tables, and whiteboards stacked in a corner of the lab. Phair told a group of 12 co-ops to make the space into whatever they wanted. The only condition? They had to keep a journal and make an entry whenever they changed something.

It was an educational experience all around. The co-ops quickly abandoned the desks in favor of the couches. They moved the collaborative whiteboards out of the way because they were blocking the sunlight. And they bridged generational gaps when it came to practices like bringing laptops and checking them during meetings.

"I'm a Baby Boomer, and I tend to see people in a meeting with a laptop as not paying attention," Phair says. "But it has become clear that early career staff coming in see it as an efficiency. They were getting answers before they left the meeting. Working together, with multiple generations in one space, was a learning experience, and we got to understand each other.

"It's that compromise, that push-pull, that seems to make things work."

Meanwhile, the construction of a new building on MITRE’s McLean, Va., campus—a three-year project completed in 2016—presented an opportunity to remake the workplace. The team took advantage of ideas prototyped with the innovation project and included lessons learned for the co-op lab study.

The building has "neighborhoods"—groupings of workspaces supporting working relationships within and among groups of employees—that includes spaces for collaboration, as well as spaces reserved for mobile workers. And the policies governing the way those spaces are used emphasizes flexibility—for example, by allowing employees to reserve collaboration rooms over a multi-day period, instead of one hour.

Flexible Work Spaces to Suit Every Work Style

The result is a group of rooms that use commercially available technology in innovative ways to accommodate just about anyone’s preferred work style. Things like size, seating capacity, and interactive technologies define spaces.

For example, "huddle rooms" allow small groups to gather quickly and conduct business—and group members can call into the room if necessary. In a fully outfitted space called a "project studio," they can pivot from presentations to brainstorming sessions. Participants can easily adjust the furniture to bring it from table to standing height, making it easier to customize the brainstorming experience. Anyone can use several writeable surfaces (tables and a wall) for jotting down ideas.

And in a "collaboration cove," people can gather around a table with dual monitors and share information and ideas with one another, including colleagues in remote locations. Participants can share information and switch who’s presenting seamlessly, saving them the time and trouble of an email thread.

"We made sure that the space would meet all of those different needs, depending on what kind of work group was in there," says Lorin Petersen, a MITRE senior software engineer who served on the Collaborative Spaces design team. "Maybe one group preferred to write everything down, while another group preferred to do something digital on a laptop. They found out they could do that all within that same room.

"The goal is a project team working together in a unified space. Each team member can collaborate in the way that best suits their work style."

Safe and Secure Collaboration—Regardless of Location

What if you can't meet with your team in person? Collaborative Spaces use technology to loop in people who can’t physically make it to any of the rooms. An interactive projector powers a built-in virtual whiteboard you can connect to via laptops. It’s touch-sensitive, so you can write on a projected image with a pen or your finger. And even if you're not physically present, you're still in. Staff in different locations can see everyone in the room, thanks to a 360-degree camera.

"You don’t want to make it more difficult for people to get the work done," says Kristy Markin, a MITRE user information and information architect who worked on the design. "But everyone knows how to pick up a marker and go write on a whiteboard. It’s a major advancement to have a projector that’s precise enough to allow people to write on it in a way that felt natural to them and have somebody else remotely see that in real time."

The technology behind the digital whiteboards is also more secure, thanks to MITRE’s input—and confidence in our role as a trusted adviser. We performed security evaluations of the electronic whiteboards in our Collaborative Systems Lab, discovered security vulnerabilities, and offered advice on how best to address them.

"We've helped industry think about security issues and drive improvements," Phair says. "These boards were never going to be used in a government installation until we did some of this work."

For Phair, that example—serving as a trusted partner and an early adapter and molder of new ideas—underscore's MITRE's approach to building the workplace of the future.

"We're willing to pilot and try new things to keep the culture of collaboration, but also support the new demographics of how we work and the distributive sense of our work."

—by Russell Woolard

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