Tensions as a framework for managing work in collaborative workplaces: a review of the empirical studies.

Published in the International Journal of Management Reviews

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Do collaborative workplaces really boost teamwork?

Recently, we have witnessed a dramatic change in how and where we work. As Covid-19 has disrupted the norms related to being physically present at work, companies have started experimenting more and more with alternatives to traditional office designs. Many have done this by shrinking physical offices and designing them to prompt face-to-face interactions. These experiments are feeding the trend toward collaborative workplaces, where employees from different parts of the organization are collocated in a non-territorial landscape designed to support planned, and chance encounters through flexible seating and shared office areas.

Ideals of adaptability and collaboration drive collaborative workplaces. Nonetheless, researchers have repeatedly observed that these outcomes might fail to materialize as employees in collaborative workplaces often experience additional conflicts, reduced social cohesion, and uncooperative behaviors.

How to explain the apparent contradiction surfacing in workplaces designed for collaboration yet frequently undermining it? What can managers do to support collaboration in these settings that are rapidly spreading? To find out, the existing empirical studies on flexible and collaborative workplaces have been reviewed to elicit the tensions that arise in these environments and understand how managers can work through them to promote collaboration and adaptability.  

Throughout the analysis, we identified three tensions in various dimensions of collaborative workplaces.

The first tension arises in their instrumental dimension. It stems from the contraposition between the ideals of flexibility instilled by the new designs and the demands for structure coming from organizational routines, interdependencies, and bureaucratic procedures. The analysis reveals how managers often respond to this tension by choosing structure over flexibility. For instance, they often structure employees’ agendas around frequent meetings. By doing so, they involuntarily organize employees’ time at the office around planned group interactions, reducing spontaneous encounters. 

A second tension pertains to the expressive dimension as it emerges between the fluidity of the collaborative workplace that encourages people to move around and collaborate within ephemeral configurations of people, departments, and rankings and the stability of how we are used to organizing social relations at work. Even in this case, the analysis reveals how managers often force inconsistencies by privileging stability over fluidity. They do this by recreating invisible boundaries around groups, such as asking people to sit nearby managers and group colleagues. As a result, fluid, collaborative workplaces end up rearranging stationary workers.

The last tension arises in the regulatory dimension of the collaborative workplace from the contraposition between privacy and exposure. Collaborative workplaces expose employees to increased stimuli aimed at collaboration and knowledge transfer. Yet, this comes at odds with privacy as an interaction affordance. This clash becomes visible, for example, when managers overly encourage employees’ collaborative engagement with the office space, prompting people to withdraw from the office chaos and increasingly work from home, making the new office way less collaborative than the traditional one.

These findings, thus, disclose how behaviors and outcomes of collaborative workplaces are tied to how managers work through some tensions. These tensions develop through everyday activities and interactions that generate options to handle them. This prompts us to question: how can managers respond to tensions without forcing inconsistencies while unleashing collaboration and adaptability?

The analysis suggests that managers have some options they can use to embrace tensions and avoid inconsistent, exclusive choices between opposite features that inevitably coexist in collaborative workplaces. These options entail “both/end” and “more-than” responses to tensions that enable managers to sustain flexibility and rigidity, fluidity and stability, and privacy and exposure. 

For instance, managers can reassert predictability and structure by introducing new digital and physical routines that devise third spaces in which flexibility is enabled and complemented by structure. They can also reterritorialize the previously localized sociabilities into new places for groups where stability plays out while fluidity is preserved in conventional working hours and spaces. Furthermore, they can modulate privacy and exposure by negotiating new norms and guidelines with employees on how to use objects to signal availability and unavailability to interact.

The tensions and their responses also highlight how autonomy and control are entangled in collaborative workplaces. Control, indeed, is made possible by the greater flexibility, fluidity, and exposure afforded by the new workplaces and evolves through managers’ responses to the identified tensions.

Overall, the findings suggest that the collaborative workplace might become the theater of unforeseen social dynamics stemming from the tensions and the responses to them. As collaborative and flexible workplaces rapidly spread, it is fundamental that companies and managers move away from the poeticized ideas of community and flexibility conveyed by the new designs, to really understand how tensions develop there, and which approaches give rise to collaboration and adaptability. Only in this way, they can sustain employees and their social relations in the new world of work. 


Published in the International Journal of Management Reviews: read the full article.

Authors at the Department of Management

Claudia Manca- Assistant Professor

Academic disciplines: Management

Teaching areas: human resource management, organizational behaviors, change management

Research fields: management and organizational behaviors  

Claudia is Assistant Professor in HR & Organization. She is also the co-director of studies for the Master in HR & Organization at Bologna Business School, where she teaches change management and communication across cultures. Her main research revolves around the impact of flexible workplace arrangements on managerial work and collaborative dynamics.