We’ve all seen sitcom episodes where the lead character takes a piece of string and divides their room down the middle, sectioning off their “territory.” Whether it’s Marsha and Jan on The Brady Bunch or Stephanie and DJ on Full House, the divider was always designed to defuse some conflict involving a violation of personal space. Battle lines were drawn and chaos ensued, but the characters ended up learning how to share their space, effectively disagree and eventually developed a deeper appreciation for their counterpart.

While these comic episodes illustrate the pros and cons of co-location — which is fundamentally all about sharing space — this article will dive into the more serious aspects that co-location plays in a business relationship. Specifically, the potential things to consider when the client and contractor share a workspace. Co-location can be a fantastic way to bring a project team together — if you execute the appropriate type of co-location for your particular project. There are two primary types of co-location:

  1. Off-site project office: This involves an office that will be occupied by the client and/or contractor only for the project duration. These are typically opened in a central location during a long, linear project like a new electrical transmission line. A central location provides ROW agents, public involvement specialists and other entities with a convenient home base that allows them to meet with landowners when necessary. Although it’s rare for the client to also work out of this office, there are some cases where the client will station a project manager on-site to oversee daily operations. Since the space is created specifically for that particular project and nothing else, a separate project office can provide a clearer sense of purpose and identity for the task at hand.
  2. Client office: This is probably the most common co-location scenario and is either utilized for teaming on a specific project or when the client needs to augment their staff on one or more projects. Client offices offer the greatest control over staff and resources, which could be a pro or a con depending on the desired outcome.

So what’s the benefit of co-locating teams? Let’s face it, technology has changed the way we interact with each other, especially at work. Rather than talking face-to-face, we increasingly opt to communicate through technology — even when that person is sitting right next to us. Even in physical meetings, people are still connected to their laptop and phone screens. So with that in mind, why does physical co-location matter?

Here’s a real-world example of a project that successfully implemented co-location: Burns & McDonnell served as Eversource Energy’s Project Manager for the Middletown-Norwalk transmission upgrade project, where we were charged with providing a range of engineering, construction and related project management services on a billion-dollar portion of a $1.4 billion program. At the time, it was the largest transmission capital project in the country.

During the project’s peak activity, Burns & McDonnell had about 50 team members who shared a dedicated project office with seven Eversource leads for engineering, construction, real estate, environmental and other roles. Those client leads served as the primary contacts for each working group and were entirely responsible for their own functional group. By interacting directly with those leads, Burns & McDonnell was able to reduce the time spent retrieving answers and ultimately created a more hands-on, collaborative approach to project execution.

The Burns & McDonnell project manager said the team was so well integrated that, looking in from the outside, you truly couldn’t tell who was with Burns & McDonnell and who was with Eversource. Through the co-location approach, the project staff saw these top benefits:

  1. Increased efficiency due to direct communication with functional leads
  2. Access to all team members in one room when needed
  3. Better/faster problem-solving
  4. Reduced coordination time
  5. Fewer requests for information due to more immediate information sharing

While there are several other co-location scenarios where team are still located within the same building, for the Eversource project, we implemented a co-location arrangement that grouped teams together by function — rather than company — on the same floor.

Co-location by Function

When engineering, construction, real estate and other similar functions are able to sit together, cohesive client/contractor teams are formed, but the benefits go far beyond having complementary teams working together and reducing the need for email and instant messaging. When individuals collaborate to resolve issues, they begin to see everyone as a member of the group as a whole. They no longer identify as ‘client’ or ‘contractor’, they’re building unique relationships based on personal interactions in a way that isn’t possible when clients and contractors operate separately. Needless to say, building positive relationships with your client establishes trust that can give the contractor a greater likelihood of earning more future work. Ultimately, we all want to do business with people we know and trust.

Once you’ve decided to co-locate teams for an upcoming project, you’ll need to be aware of the important details needed for successfully implementing a smooth transition for the project teams. Here are a few things to consider:

Combining Corporate Cultures

If the contractor is working in the client’s office, the client’s procedures and corporate culture usually prevail, but what if there are fundamental culture differences between the two entities? If the office is an off-site, project-specific location, it’s important for management from both groups to discuss what policies they share, which are different, and what rules will be used by the combined team.

If you’re considering co-location, here are a few guidelines to help make it a positive and successful experience:

  • Determine how long client and contractor teams will be working together
  • Clearly define which party is paying for the office and all the necessary equipment
  • Take steps to unify the team; host team-building sessions, happy hours and other group activities that will help make the working environment as enjoyable as possible
  • Consider cost and schedule in every discussion
  • Measure progress and action items daily
  • Hold weekly lessons-learned sessions for all team members
  • Offer mentoring and training to the whole team

If you’re considering co-location for your next project, it’s important to weigh all the factors that go into a successful transition early and start having conversations with decision-makers about whether co-location is appropriate for your situation.

Jennifer Berry, Right of Way Project Manager and Stakeholder Management Specialist in Burns & McDonnell’s Environmental Studies & Permitting department, where she specializes in project management and public outreach for projects requiring land acquisition.

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