When Pixar decided to build a new office, their original plan was to build an office modeled after other Hollywood studios. Essentially, separate buildings housing different teams (if you have been to The Universal Studios, you will know what am referring to). But Jobs had other ideas. He knew that innovation and creativity were sparked through face to face meetings and dialog. Job had a big hand on a new design that included restrooms in the middle of an atrium in the center of the building among other concepts that encouraged the possibility of people meeting one another by chance. It was a brilliant master stroke in terms of promoting connections and collaboration at Pixar.
Many organizations have embraced a open workplace design (Especially those that are in the innovation business – ad agencies, software companies, and the likes). Open workplaces seem to create a positive vibe and seem to deliver increased energy levels in the office. Check out Citrix’s office space here.)
But are we going overboard with the open workplace concept? I am asking this question because of my own personal experience. One of my previous employers decided to move us to a new office with a open workspace. I found it extremely difficult to deal with the new work area. The problem was, my job involved a lot of phone calls and it was the same story for the people siting next to me. Many a times, the person on the other end of the line thought that I was carrying on a side conversation or that somebody else has joined the call. And I found it outright annoying as my train of thought was constantly disrupted. The problem was, my job (believe it or not) required limited collaboration at defined points in time and the majority of my time was spent as a lone wolf. To top it all, I was finding myself constantly being dragged into unnecessary gossip.
I stumbled on a podcast from Wharton that added another dimension to my annoyance with the open workplace. Susan Cain, the author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking“, highlights the rampant emphasis on extroverted collaboration that places introverts at a serious disadvantage. Cain makes an argument that the default workspace model should be a zone of privacy. She also adds that we should acknowledge our ability to think creatively when we are alone and that this needs to be a part of any kind of decision-making process. You can listen to podcast here.
In summary, I would like highlight two key takeaways:
1. Workspace design is in important parameter in the organization’s ability to collaborate and innovate. When we think of collaboration, we should go beyond just software tools, emails, and chats.
2. Cater to all kinds of people (introverts and extroverts) when designing work-spaces. Provide opportunities for serendipitous encounters and collaboration. At the same time, take into consideration the job requirements and the need to contemplate and think without distractions.
I guess, the cubicle is not dead after all.