How do some companies build highly collaborative environments while others don’t? It’s not about open desks and forced team activities. It’s all about creating opportunities for your people to interact while also cultivating a collaborative spirit.
There was an interesting research study conducted back in the 1940s. To accommodate returning servicemen and their families, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) built several housing developments. Two psychologists and one sociologist took the opportunity to use one of the housing developments in an experiment to help them discover how friendships form.
What the researchers found was that physical space was the key to the formation of friendships. It wasn’t the case that people with similar attitudes and beliefs became friends. Instead, friendships were more likely to develop based on brief and passive contacts.
It was their conclusions that ultimately shaped the way corporate giants like Pixar’s Steve Jobs and Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page looked at their office space.
Steve Job’s Approach to a Collaborative Workplace
Early in his career, Jobs was the co-founder of Apple. After leaving Apple he went on to acquire the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm and renamed it Pixar Animation Studios. When designing Pixar’s headquarters, Jobs intentionally wanted to create a space that promoted encounters and unplanned collaboration. The original plans for the headquarters separated different employee disciplines into different buildings. There was a building for computer scientists. Another for animators. And, another for everyone else.
To accomplish his goal, Jobs redesigned the plans and moved all of the teams from separate buildings together into one space. This was a space where people, no matter what their responsibilities were within the company, could interact with each other. His design included a large atrium that acts as a central hub for the entire campus. The atrium also houses a reception area, employee mailboxes, a cafe, foosball tables, a fitness center, two 40-seat viewing rooms, and a large theater.
Job’s biography shares his belief that, “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.”
Pixar Studios in Emeryville, California
Google’s Approach to a Collaborative Workplace
Google took a different approach to fostering collaboration. Their approach at their New York City campus was centered around food. By design, no part of the office was more than 150 feet away from food. Be it a restaurant, a large cafeteria, or a micro-kitchen, everyone on the campus was within a short walk to food.
The design concept was clearly founded upon MIT’s research from the 1940s. Google intentionally built a space which encourages their people to bump into coworkers from different teams within the company as they ate and snacked throughout the day.
Why Is Collaboration Important Anyway?
Why make the effort to build a collaborative workplace? There are several reasons for this. Working and thinking silos have been blamed for past competitive setbacks for large companies that include Microsoft, Sony, and UBS. Additionally, research has shown that silos can prevent companies from providing good service or making products customers actually want.
Make Your Workplace More Collaborative
If you are building out new office space, or redesigning your existing space, be sure to create an environment that provides opportunities for your people to casually interact with one another. Create an open plan, or other design features, that encourage accidental conversations. Having common areas in which people can read or work is another great idea.
If you can’t build out a campus that mixes teams and people with different roles into the same space, that’s okay. There are other things that you can do. Make it clear to everyone that collaboration is a minimum standard in your office. This is the basis of creating a culture of collaboration. Then foster a collaborative atmosphere. Allow your people to question and brainstorm in a non-judgmental framework. Encourage your people to get to know their coworkers, no matter which department they work in.
Regardless of your office design and management styles, don’t forget to value food in the way that Pixar does. Eating is a social activity and conversation lubricant. So, find opportunities to get your people to eat together in the same space. Providing lunch to your people is one way to do that. It draws people out of their silos, and away from their desks, to enjoy a delicious meal and interact with people they may have never met otherwise.
Collaboration is important. And, it doesn’t take much to make it a core feature of your organization.