On Collaboration: An Interview with IA Interior Architects Senior Designer Katherine Dao

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

In the 9 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 Katherine Dao, Associate and Senior Designer at IA Interior Architects‘ Orange County office, who recently designed the offices of Bumble Bee Foods and The Enthusiast Network. She 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 IA Interior Architects? Is it different depending on the company?

Katherine Dao: There is not a one-size- fits-all solution. For a client of IA, a collaborative office is one that is tailored and fit for optimal working synergy. Recognizing that each client has specific needs, we incorporate strategic programming exercises into the planning process for a custom solution.

Projects are initiated with field observations, visioning sessions and team interviews. With a complete understanding of our clients’ work processes, we can assess and plan for the varying levels of collaboration needed, able to suit each client’s unique work culture.


The Enthusiast Network by IA Interior Architects
Photography by RMA Photography

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

KD: When clients request a collaborative office, their need to be more team-oriented is also confirmed through our own observations in field and interviews with staff. Once we have determined what the end goals are for collaboration, we can plan for a variety of meeting space types. Examples of these goals include better team communication, improvement of problem solving, boosting productivity or enhancing innovation. After identifying what problems we need to solve we can then create and enhance meeting areas with proper enclosure level, furniture, and/or technology.

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?

KD: Absolutely. Simply having employees in an open office concept does not translate to productive collaboration. Spaces need to be activated for varying levels of team meetings. Proximity, privacy levels, furniture, technology, tools or even food are effective ways to encourage teaming.

When Bumble Bee Foods opted for an open plan concept in their new downtown San Diego offices, their number of offices decreased, workstation partitions were lowered and the number of meeting rooms increased. To further enhance collaboration, a variety of meeting spaces were offered. From open booths, huddle areas and three sizes of meeting rooms; their space was fully equipped to engage teams at all levels.


Bumble Bee Foods by IA Interior Architects
Photography by Benny Chan

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

KD: While different cultures will reflect varying levels of collaboration, design can hinder or improve synergy. When we designed The Enthusiast Network’s offices in Irvine, they shifted from their historic office-intensive space with segregated departments and 60” height workstations to 42” height dividers and fewer closed offices, most with no doors, to promote a unified team culture.

Team communication was also essential to The Enthusiast Networks collaborative culture. Their garage was designed to be flexible, converting to indoor/outdoor event space for quarterly town hall and sales meetings. Further integrating their culture into the collaborative areas, video and full wall graphic images displaying their creative teams’ products were celebrated.

Indeed, at TEN, it was clear that strategic planning with consideration of a company’s culture could maximize an office’s level of collaboration.


The Enthusiast Network by IA Interior Architects
Photography by RMA Photography

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

KD: Collaborative offices are often mistaken as being fully open, having no areas for privacy or focus. For effective teamwork, collaborative offices need to be balanced with areas for open team communication as well as for individual work.

Orange County building owners recognize this and are offering spaces to break away to in their common areas. The Irvine Company, at 47 Discovery in Irvine, converted a pass through area into a work lounge. Likewise, J&R Group at 2525 Main’s amenities include a communal work lounge, focus rooms and seating off the elevator lobby for all tenants to share.