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Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Iteration

How to Build a Collaborative Office Space Like Pixar and Google

What makes for an effective office environment? Random encounters with your coworkers. And food. Lots and lots of food.


When the Second World War ended, universities struggled to cope with record enrollments. Like many universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology built a series of new housing developments for returning servicemen and their young families. One of those developments was named Westgate West. The buildings doubled as the research lab for three of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century and would come to reframe the way we think about office spaces.

In the late 1940s, psychologists Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter, and sociologist Kurt Back began to wonder how friendships form. Why do some strangers build lasting friendships, while others struggle to get past basic platitudes? Some experts, including Sigmund Freud, explained that friendship formation could be traced to infancy, where children acquired the values, beliefs, and attitudes that would bind or separate them later in life. But Festinger, Schachter, and Back pursued a different theory that would go on to shape the thinking of contemporary prophets from Steve Jobs to Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

The researchers believed that physical space was the key to friendship formation; that “friendships are likely to develop on the basis of brief and passive contacts made going to and from home or walking about the neighborhood.”¹ In their view, it wasn’t so much that people with similar attitudes became friends, but rather that people who passed each other during the day tended to become friends and later adopted similar attitudes.

 

Screen-Shot-2013-06-06-at-10.30.58-AM-550x218

Festinger and his colleagues approached the students some months after they had moved into Westgate West, and asked them to list their three closest friends. The results were fascinating—and they had very little to do with values, beliefs, and attitudes. Forty-two percent of the responses were direct neighbors, so the resident of apartment 7 was quite likely to list the residents of apartments 6 and 8 as friends—and less likely to list the residents of apartments 9 and 10. Even more striking, the lucky residents of apartments 1 and 5 turned out to be the most popular, not because they happened to be kinder or more interesting, but because they happened to live at the bottom of the staircase that their upstairs neighbors were forced to use to reach the building’s second floor. Some of these accidental interactions fizzled, of course, but in contrast to the isolated residents of apartments 2 and 4, those in apartments 1 and 5 had a better chance of meeting one or two kindred spirits.

Westgate West as Inspiration for Pixar

Half a century passed, and the Westgate West message began to infiltrate office culture. Steve Jobs famously redesigned the offices at Pixar, which originally housed computer scientists in one building, animators in a second building, and executives and editors in a third. Jobs recognized that separating these groups, each with its own culture and approach to problem-solving, discouraged them from sharing ideas and solutions.

Pixar's office via >a href="http://www.fubiz.net/2010/05/17/pixar-office/">Fubuz

Pixar’s office, designed to encourage collaboration – via Fubuz

Perhaps the animators could introduce a fresh perspective when the computer scientists became stuck; and maybe the executives would learn more about the nuts and bolts of the business if they occasionally met an animator in the office kitchen, or a computer scientist at the water cooler. Jobs ultimately succeeded in creating a single cavernous office that housed the entire Pixar team, and John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, declared that he’d “never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”

Google’s “150-Feet From Food” Rule

Google’s New York City campus capitalizes on many of the same ideas. The growing campus already has a massive footprint, occupying an entire floor (and part of some other floors) in a building that covers a city block in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The elevators that link these floors are notoriously slow, so instead of forcing workers to wait, the architects built vertical ladder chutes between adjacent floors. Workers are encouraged to “casually collide,” an aim that echoes Jobs’ encouragement of “unplanned collaborations.”

When I visited the campus in March, my guide explained that no part of the office was more than 150 feet from food—either a restaurant, a large cafeteria, or a micro-kitchen—which encourages employees to snack constantly as they bump into coworkers from different teams within the company. Even if Google workers aren’t constantly generating new ideas, plenty of evidence suggests that they enjoy their work, and that this enjoyment feeds into motivation and eventually greater productivity.

Festinger and his colleagues were right to focus on physical space when they explored how friendships form—but what made their investigation doubly impressive was how deeply their insights influenced the corporate world’s smartest thinkers fifty years in the future. People with similar attitudes are more likely to get along, those with diverse backgrounds are more likely to generate novel ideas, but none of those interactions exist without the primary ingredient of casual encounters and unexpected conversations.

The key features that make for a collaborative office space:

  • An open plan and other design features (e.g., high-traffic staircases) that encourage accidental interactions.
  • More common areas than are strictly necessary—multiple cafeterias, other places to read and work that encourage workers to leave confined offices.
  • Emphasis on areas that hold two or more people, rather than single-occupancy offices.
  • Purpose-free generic “thinking” areas in open-plan spaces, which encourage workers to do their thinking in the presence of other people, rather than alone.

What About Your Workspace?

What office features do you think make for a more collaborative workspace?

Comments (2)
  • PBennet

    This type of office works only for workers who spend the majority of time collaborating with colleagues. For other types of workers, it is like living in a dehumanizing gulag. Several recent papers indicate that thought workers in open plan offices are significantly less productive than those that have individual offices. I can personally attest to this fact. I have worked in both environments and absolutely detest open plans since the noise, distractions, and interruptions become intolerable very quickly. Companies have embraced open plans primarily because they are much cheaper and they can pack more employees per square foot.

    • Mark Thomas

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Some people would hate working at Google. But those are exactly the types of people they don’t want.

      • David Foran

        Throughout history the greatest minds in science, mathematics, physics etc. uncovered their most important discoveries, and their greatest inventions while engaged in deep thought within the solitude of a quite space without distractions. Many were considered “Loners” like Isaac Newton who would cut himself off from all human contact and completely disappear for long periods of time. There is a time for deep thinking and a time for collaboration. I doubt Google would ever hire a man like Isaac Newton or Thomas Jefferson. Then again their contributions hardly compare to the wonders of Farmville. I also find it odd that companies will strive for diversity of skin color or sexual preference but tightly restrict diversity of thought. “The types of people they don’t want” probably have a lot to offer.

      • David Foran

        “i lived in solitude in the country and noticed how the monotony of a quite life stimulates the creative mind.”~Albert Einstein

  • Marc

    I complete agree with PBennet. We gave the choice to our employees of whether to have 4 foot high partitions between cubicles, 3 foot high partitions, or open spaces. They chose 4 foot high partitions. We have kitchens not far away, lots of meeting rooms, good lighting, acceptable ventilation, low noise, great chairs. I hear no complaints about the office space.
    The type of work we do requires individual concentration, with frequent meetings, both formal and informal. Our office space fits our type of work.
    On the other side of our building, formal planners created large offices with floor-ceiling windows around the perimeter, and cubicles inside. They did not consult employees. Employees, including the ones in the perimeter offices, don’t like the environment, even though it is more luxurious.
    The “fit” between needs and reality, I believe, is far more important than seizing upon an open office or closed office concept.
    In other words, as in all architectural projects, budget + needs should drive design, not preconceived notions by central planners.

    • ivyfree

      Just pointing out that fear of heights is the most common phobia in the world, and floor-to-ceiling windows can be nervewracking. We recently moved into a new building and they put floor-to-ceiling windows in the common areas and I hate being in those areas because it makes me nauseated and shaky. Architects and designers need to catch a clue. Not everyone likes the feeling that they’re going to fall out the window.

  • lou

    we are very proud of being in exact opposite of every feature described . We have wooden doors for single occupancy offices, no open area’s , nothing that encourages meetings . In fact we avoid each other .

    • marissa

      I did not like the abundance of white light in Google NY office. It is a very interesting area, but my dream space regardless of open or close like the one from companies that create games.

    • Vicki Brown

      Where do you work? Can I come there?

  • Thomas Fischer

    Excellent Article!

  • View from Above

    Context is everything, and of course different organisations with different cultures and different business verticals require different layouts. What isn’t up for debate is that these open environments are going to be stuffed full of noise, distraction and interruption. Nice new idea from a start-up out to solve that: http://www.canfocus.com

  • Katherine

    Great article – agree with comments on introverts and a need for both open and more solitary spaces. Also, per the title — to state the obvious, an open floorplan won’t automatically transform your organization into a Pixar or Google — takes both commitment to the broader ideology behind a culture of innovation, and a work environment that resonates with the unique authentic core of who you are/what you do.

  • Richard Stephenson

    Very good article that is very actionable for every manager worth reading!

  • Helen

    Yes, new technology can reduce the construction period of the building of 3 – 4 times
    http://www.onlineessay.us/write-my-essay.html

  • D

    I probably work in the worst office ever created for fostering collaboration. Pretty sad!

    • marissa

      You are not alone!!

  • Barabbas

    The article is titled “How to Build Collaborative Office Space”. If your company/field discourages collaboration, then the article probably doesn’t apply to you/your employer.

    As an interior designer, I’ve found the most effective way to balance the private/public relationships is to compromise with 2/3 occupant offices instead of single occupant ones.
    This technique ensures workers have the quiet they need to concentrate, as well as some degree of socialization.

  • http://www.megafounder.com/ Jonathan García

    Nice post! Thanks!

  • Sa Rah

    Fantastic theory on concept space planning! Great article

  • StartAskingQuestions

    Very interesting perspective, thanks! But I think it’s time for a new study that takes into account the ways people collaborate using modern technology. I agree that we still need casual interactions in order to build relationships that lead to innovation. But once those relationships have formed, I don’t think people need to see each other daily in order to maintain them, as long as they can use technology to stay connected. You may be interested in my take on this, here: http://www.startaskingquestions.com/blog/put-the-face-back-in-face-time/

  • Keira Bui
  • mrsforbes

    I relate to this totally. As an introverted graphic designer I need time alone to think ideally in an office with a door that closes. I enjoy collaboration after I’ve done my thinking. I think I would hate working at a place like Google that’s all open all the time.

  • Xanthippe

    When my company went to an open office to “boost creativity” I noticed that the only thing that changed was my knowledge of office gossip and my knowledge of other people’s projects. This was because of all of the encounters that occurred when 2 or more people met outside my cube. Annoying (especially if not about work) and distracting I asked as nicely as I know how for them to take the conversation somewhere else. Complaints got back to senior management and I was lectured on “failing to collaborate” – which was not what I was doing. When I worked with someone I made it a point to meet in a small conference room so as not to disturb people close to my cube.

    • Kiki

      Physical/design changes are more beneficial when paired with intention when it comes to culture shifts. Simply saying we want a new culture or commanding collaboration without actively providing or facilitating tools and lessons for collaboration sells everyone short. Culture changes simply don’t magically happen.

      Being reprimanded for not living up to a collaborative environment and then being sent back to your “cube” is its own mixed message.

    • Vicki Brown

      @Xanthippe – I want you for my co-worker!

  • Andy

    the first image link is broken

  • http://post404.com/ Randall "texrat" Arnold

    Some treat this as a black-and-white issue but it’s not at all. Open works for some needs, not so much for others. The Nokia site I worked at found useful balance in one facility. Most work areas were low-walled and open, with rooms along the perimeter for meetings, quiet retreat, etc. Easy to address.

    • KenanSulayman

      Thing is if it’s too open that the “personal space” is reduced; effectiveness needs a perfect weight between personal space and openness!🙂

      • http://post404.com/ Randall "texrat" Arnold

        As I said, the work site I was at found that balance. Easily. No reason any modern workplace should fall into one or another extreme.

    • Vicki Brown

      I would have spent the entire day in one of those rooms along the perimeter. What you describe isn’t enough balance.

      • http://post404.com/ Randall "texrat" Arnold

        Worked for us.

      • Vicki Brown

        “Us” being the company. But did you ever ask any of the individuals? A lot of people sit and seethe but don’t speak up because, if they do, they’re told to shut up.

        I worked in a cube farm. 80 cubes, 5-ft-tall cube walls, no “real” walls, so sound-dampening materials. People talking. People holding conference calls on speaker phone.

        When I asked if we could install some sound dampening materials, our Sr VP replied that my area sounded like a “great place” for “spontaneous collaboration” and he would need to visit because it sounded so wonderful.

        Given the many articles I’ve read (and the comments on those articles) plus the fact that 50% of people are Introverts, I would bet that if you had actually asked everyone — and guaranteed them safety in responding honestly — you would have discovered that roughly half the workforce actually hated the layout.

      • http://post404.com/ Randall "texrat" Arnold

        Nooo, “us” was the workers. You make way too many assumptions about our environment and culture. I guarantee you that the majority consensus was that employees loved the work environment. In fact it attracted many candidates, like myself, who hate cube farms. Also, we were VERY quiet due to the openness. Conversations were held in the conference and meeting rooms.

        I understand from your comments that you are very strongly opposed to this sort of work situation, and that may get in the way of you considering that others would actually enjoy it. But I’m an introvert as well, and discovered I fit in better in that open environment than I ever did in a high walled cube maze. That’s depressing to me.

        bottom line: to each their own, which was one of my original points. I grant that openness is not for everyone, but you seem to assume it isn’t for ANYone.

  • JuliusRL

    (Sigh) If only we lived in a world where companies were less budget focused and more creative driven.. I’d like to gut my entire office and collaborate with interior designers to create a SUPER DOPE work space.. and then I woke up.

  • Vicki Brown

    {{Shudder}}

  • Some creative guy

    I’ve worked in both, and to my surprise I like OPEN. Never woulda thought it prior to actually working in an open studio environment and enjoying the creative energy it afforded.

  • markwguay

    I wonder now how colleges will cope with lack of enrollment. Kind of like the factory buildings spread throughout blue-collar cities now turned artists’ flats, I wonder what will become of the spaces once used for academia. Also, this makes me think about if schooling becomes more of a laptop-based cloud commuting experience, how will creative collaboration evolve?

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Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.