The best office design for collaboration is also the cheapest

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

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

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.