The best office design for collaboration is also the cheapest

Apple's plans for new headquarters in Cupertino

Apple’s plans for new headquarters in Cupertino

Steve Jobs wanted the Pixar headquarters to be a place that “promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations.” He was personally involved in the design details as he was with Apple’s plans for new headquarters.

“If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”

But what if you don’t have Apple’s budget? Or what if your employees are spread across buildings, cities, and countries? Then what?

Why physical space matters

The Pixar atrium

The Pixar atrium

By putting the bathrooms and other shared services in Pixar’s atrium, Jobs forced people to have to come into contact with each other. And there’s research to show why that’s a good idea. One study from Carnegie-Mellon put it most directly:

“physical proximity induces collaboration among people who might otherwise not collaborate. For example, if two were in the same department, they were two-thirds more likely to collaborate if their offices were on then same corridor than if the offices were only on the same floor.”

In studying how researchers collaborated, they found that a few yards made a significant difference in how often they spoke and might work together.

Less effective attempts at your firm

Less spectacular ways to get people physically together include “forced elbow-bumping”. In describing the importance of physical environments in “Influencer”, the authors related tactics of HP managers:

“leaders demanded that employees keep, of all things, a messy desk…By leaving work visible and accessible, they found it was much more likely that others wandering by would see, take an interest, and get involved in the work of a colleague.”

“mandating a daily break where everyone leaves his or her desk, retires to a common area, and drinks fruit juices while chatting with fellow employees about what’s happening at work…”

“Fruit juices while chatting” might be nice. But there’s no evidence to show that the staged networking events produce any value other than to make managers feel like they’re doing something.

A better, cheaper way: digital propinquity

Now, social technology provides us with a way to bring people together across geographies and timezones in ways that weren’t possible before. In a NY Times article from 2008 titled “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy”, the author describes the “ambient awareness” that comes from the short updates and activity streams in most social platforms:

“It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye….This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible…”

And, again, the importance for collaboration is supported by research. The same Carnegie-Mellon study tried to answer why physical distance matters so much. Look carefully at the language they use and how it echoes the Times article.

“Observational and survey studies of work teams have suggested that two important mechanisms by which proximity promotes collaborative work are through support for passive awareness of others’ activities and by the facilitation of informal communication. [bold is mine]. When people are co-located, they can view others’ activities and overhear others’ discussions, thereby learning about the existence of new potential collaborators and monitoring the progress of their current collaborators. Proximity also facilitates informal conversations which can serve to enhance social relationships and work coordination “

Propinquity is a word used to describe physical nearness but a richer definition is kinship. It’s expensive and often impossible to reduce the physical distance, but you can increase the digital propinquity – the kinship between employees – by encouraging the use of a social platform at work.

“I feel like I know you so well”

A social platform

A social platform

I get to see first-hand how people who’ve never met (and may be working in different divisions in different locations holding different corporate titles) show a fondness for each other – and thus a much greater willingness to collaborate – than they ever would have done before we had a social platform.

A common comment is “I never met you but I feel I know you”, with some directly giving thanks for the platform “giving me the chance to connect with a great person whom I otherwise would have never known.”

Every firm is struggling to have their people break down silos and collaborate more. Creating a more human workplace – improving the propinquity, the kinship between people – isn’t just a nice to have. It’s better business.

But before you spend money on new offices, focus instead on implementing a social platform. And create an environment where people can come to know each other wherever they are.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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17 Responses to The best office design for collaboration is also the cheapest

  1. Sam G says:

    Good stuff John. I’m reminded of a quote I read (paraphrasing with very limited recall): The photocopier is the best networking tool ever invented.

  2. This is one of the main reasons I’ve been promoting Agile techniques at work. The frequent time set aside to interact and specifically ask the entire team to discuss what they are doing and any impediments they have really does help with collaboration and problem solving.
    Physical proximity in larger companies is difficult to achieve. Systems like Jive, Instant messenger, video chat etc. will never be able to replace that, but they are certainly much better than the alternative of leaving people physically separate and unlikely to interact unless forced to meet for a specific purpose.

    • John Stepper says:

      While I trivialized “fruit juices while chatting” there are of course tremendous benefits to meeting in person. Used wisely, in person meetings can be extremely valuable.

      The problem is the over-emphasis on in-person meetings to the exclusion of other, cheaper, more scalable ways to get people to know each other. And there’s a side benefit. By getting people to write things down, creating a culture of working out loud, you’ll fundamentally transform how people access and build on knowledge as well as how they learn.

      • There does seem to be a culture these days that the only way to talk to someone is to arrange a meeting.

        Add to that the fact that most systems such as Outlook default meeting duration to an hour (who said that was the right amount of time?) and you have a recipe for filling up a day without actually adding much value.
        Shorter but more frequent information flows provide for a richer and more collaborative experience.

  3. Ana says:

    I would add that some introverts may be shy to address a colleague they don’t know very well when bumping into each other on the watercoler (or the coffee machine in Europe 🙂 ) but might reach out via a social platform. Have you seen this happen John?
    On the topic of designing the physical space to foster collaboration, not sure if you’ve already checked this article on Zappos:

  4. hjsturm says:

    Like this idea and think its important to use any possibility we have to allow and enhace collaboration. Design a building in that sense – great!! Provide other ways for shy people – digital – great!! It has to be a mixture as we are different.

  5. John I recognise and agree with the “drip feed” effect of knowing someone through the intermittent (and sometimes seemingly trivial) on social networking platforms. I do feel connected to friend and colleagues on the other side of the world who I have not physically seen for years. However, I instinctively worry about environments where people communicate by typing/texting – even if they could go walk and talk to them. This seems to be the beginning of a non verbal culture – would be very interested in your thoughts on this?

    • John Stepper says:

      Hi, Moyra. I’ve had a few reactions to this weekend’s post along the lines of “but face-to-face is important!”

      Yes, meeting face to face is important. And it’s also expensive and doesn’t scale well. So use it wisely.

      There is no doubt we have the balance wrong today. Too much time in meetings and town halls with little if any knowledge captured or value gained.

      Yes, there’s a risk people can overdo it. Just as they can overuse email and avoid personal contact. But the many commercial and cultural benefits is introducing social platforms makes it worth the risk.

      And…there are ways we can leverage social platforms at work to encourage more (and more purposeful) in-person contact. More on that in next week’s post perhaps. 🙂

  6. Marcus Richards says:

    It is very true – quite a lot of useful feedback from the consultants team who have to use our development effort comes by overhearing them over the partition discussing how to make the software work – sometimes the things you hear are quite surprising and unexpected (!) and would probably never come up in a scheduled meeting. Attempting to formalise this process has not worked and the best way to keep in touch is still to keep one hear open to what they are talking about. Not sure how this could be digitised …?

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, Marcus. There’s no substitute for the kind of in-person proximity you describe. And yet, what of the developers a few cubes away where you can’t overhear them? Or in another building or city? The best way to digitize spontaneous discovery is by encouraging people to work out loud. When people make their work visible and narrate their work in progress, they promote encounters like you describe wherever they are.

      More on working out loud here:

  7. Long ago when I worked in the student activities office on a college campus, we used to post a question of the week on butcher block paper in the office break area with a stack of markers and Post-it notes nearby. One of my favorite “refreshers” when I needed a quick break during the day was to check what new contributions were up on the wall and to have informal conversations with others taking a break as well. We would then bring the complete sheet into our next staff meeting, discuss the ideas, and determine any actions to take.

    When I worked in my first nonprofit, instead of having a routing folder that people passed from office to office, we created daily routing folders that stayed in our informal break area. People were forced to go there to catch up on reading materials being routed, again causing other informal interactions and conversations to occur.

    While designing office space to increase chance collisions between people is indeed a simple and very valuable step, adding an additional reason (casual, informal, but interesting) for them to collide with ideas and their colleagues is also worth considering. And many of the same ideas will have a virtual parallel that can be implemented.

  8. Pingback: If Yahoo! employees worked out loud… | johnstepper

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