On Collaboration: An Interview with Baker Design Group Principal Stephen Baker

On Collaboration is a editorial series of interviews investigating the concept of collaboration in the modern workplace.

In the 8 years since Office Snapshots began publishing, we’ve watched the idea of the collaborative office rise to the level of an almost meaningless buzzword. But collaboration – working together to achieve a goal or complete a task – is an essential ingredient in any workplace that will not disappear any time soon.

We recently spoke with Stephen Baker, Principal of Baker Design Group, the Boston-based architecture firm responsible for the design of TripAdvisor’s Needham Headquarters. He tells us about what collaboration in the contemporary office landscape looks like and how the firm works to help clients create an environment which matches the unique needs of each organization.

Office Snapshots: What does a collaborative office space look for a client of Baker Design Group? Is it different depending on the company?

Stephen Baker: Collaborative spaces are typically designed differently depending on the company and their work. Different industries will have multiple and unique ways they prefer to engage with each other. We have an extremely wide variety of client types, so you can imagine that a team from a conservative global investment firm will engage in collaboration differently than a tech start-up. What’s common between companies or industries is the need for the office space to be inviting and comfortable, and for access to technology to be integrated. The technology can be as simple as access to Wi-Fi, or it can be as sophisticated as a 28’ wide immersive HD Video Teleconferencing system that allows for collaborators to intuitively and naturally connect with other teams around the world.

OS: Do companies ask you for a “collaborative office” or do those needs present themselves through discussions about what their needs are.

SB: Requests for a collaborative office come about in many ways. For some companies, their collaborative culture is part of their DNA. We learn how they presently collaborate, and then we assist them to enhance their experience with integrated technologies. We also work with established companies or institutions that want to transform their culture and become more collaborative. This requires a gentle and thoughtful approach to address their concerns for privacy and noise. Often, it is helpful for them to visit working environments that we have built in the past to be able to see, touch, and feel the difference of a more open and collaborative office. On these tours, they will often ask to speak with the clients to hear their first-hand experience and the benefits experienced by their teams to a new approach.

For example, we assisted a large construction company with 800 employees to transform their office design and working culture to embrace collaboration. We designed the office in a manner to promote collaboration, while also addressing their individual needs for focused workspace. The design of this new area of the office was a complete departure for the company and set the stage for a major cultural shift.

This construction company organized an internal Open House to show off the new floor of their office, and I received a call to let me know that I should consider not attending the event…..for my own safety! I was told that there were several employees who had major concerns about working in this new manner. About two weeks after the Open House, I received a call from the head of the company with news of a successful transformation within their team. Those who complained the loudest were now the biggest proponents of the newly open and collaborative office design. Our call concluded with the client saying, “Oh, by the way…..it’s safe for you to visit anytime you like.”

OS: We often see companies thinking of collaboration as being “putting employees in an open plan and watch them collaborate”. Do you find that there are misconceptions about what collaborative work environments are?

SB: There are often misconceptions of what makes a collaborative workplace. As described above, people fear change, especially when they are not an integral part of the process leading up to that change. It often isn’t until they experience the variety of spaces to support their collaboration, both publically and privately, that they realize their needs could be better met by the new office design.

The tours and imagery of precedent collaborative office designs we have delivered are the best way to communicate the variety of spaces that compose a collaborative office and more importantly, how a new workflow might empower their team.

OS: Is the actual act of collaborating something that is design-driven or culture-driven? Or both?

SB: The act of collaboration is first culturally driven, and it always starts with the leaders of the company or institution. If the leaders of the organization value the process of collaboration, then they will try to foster this within their working environments right from the start. Start-up companies often have to take whatever space they can find and make it collaborative. When companies mature and their culture of collaboration is well integrated into their work, they will often ask us to help them find ways to elevate their capabilities of collaboration through design and technology integration.

OS: Do you have any other thoughts about what a collaborative office environment is or isn’t or should be?

SB: Collaboration is typically a process in which a group of people come together (of all ages) with a desire to pool their talents and experiences to solve a problem or achieve a goal. This requires that the individuals have (or acquire) good communication and active listening skills. These skills have nothing to do with the “generation” that you were born into; they have everything to do with developing social skills and an open mind.

There’s a great deal of press about how “Millennials” should be the focus of collaborative office design. We feel that this is too limiting; good collaborative office design needs to embrace the needs of all the generations of today, and the generations yet to come. A collaborative office can be designed as a “timeless” response to the need for humans to gather and share ideas. Over time, the tools of technology change, but the best integration of these tools in support of collaboration is to make them intuitive to use and virtually invisible.

We have seen countless examples of how well-built warehouse buildings with simple but durable materials, exposed structures, and mechanical systems start their life as storage or manufacturing facilities. The timeless and authentic response of a warehouse design can accommodate almost any evolution in the programmatic needs over time. It’s the authenticity of the building, structure, and materials that appeals to almost everyone of any generation. These types of buildings can be seen repurposed today as offices, artist studios, homes, museums, retail stores, schools, and research facilities. If a client were to view their new office building as needing the flexibility, durability, and dignity of a warehouse, they might consider building a modern loft warehouse as their new headquarters. This would be appealing to any of the generations who would occupy the facility, and would be flexible enough to address the evolving programmatic needs over time. The key is to understand how their organization connects emotionally with employees and to express that in their space to create a timeless experience that supports a thriving culture.


Acoustic engineering is often not given the credit that is due in the success of creating a great collaborative office design. One group collaborating can create noise that disrupts another group working on highly focused individual tasks. This often happens within the same area of the office, so managing the acoustic outcome is critical in the success and happiness of the individuals and groups. Whenever we hear a client say that an open office design doesn’t work for them, we usually find that their experience is from a facility where the acoustics were not properly addressed.