September 30, 2020
Your next great business idea could be at the zoo,
or while making a PB & J,
or better yet, having a beer at your company’s Friday happy hour.
Studies are showing that the remote vs. in-office work debate is not just about productivity and culture changes. It’s about innovation and creativity.
For instance, in one study tracking the behaviors of a sales team of a pharmaceutical company, “when a salesperson increased interactions with coworkers on other teams . . . by 10%, his or her sales also grew by 10%.”
Another study at the University of Michigan found that researchers in the same building are 33 percent more likely to collaborate than coworkers who occupy different buildings, and those on the same floor are 57 percent more likely.
Similarly, executives are keen on this trend. Jay Erickson, chief innovation officer, and a founding partner at Modus design firm said, “The screen lets you talk to people more efficiently. But the gems of insight come when you see a physician do something in a consulting room and ask, ‘Why did you do that?’ That’s how you discover something you would not have known to ask about.”
Bank of America, IBM, and even newer tech companies like Reddit all pulling workers back into their offices. As far as fostering creativity and promoting creative solutions go, they view this shift back into the workplace as a good thing.
As we at Transcend focus on finding and building out spaces that support culture, connection, and creativity, we looked to clear examples of innovation spurred by random interaction and creative collaboration. Not surprisingly, thousands of startups and major name brands have exploded in the last hundred years because of unplanned run-ins with co-workers and sparks of insight in the lunchroom. We found five major examples of spontaneous innovation that will inspire and perhaps encourage more ways we can reestablish interaction with our teams to keep creativity alive.
Scientist, Dr. Spencer Silver was working on a project to develop stronger adhesives for tougher jobs when he accidentally developed an epoxy that was just the opposite – a slightly sticky substance that easily detached without any residue. At the same time, another 3M scientist, Dr. Art Fry was struggling every week during his evening choir practice to keep the pages in his hymnal marked for Sunday performances. The paper scraps he used tended to fall out over time. In telling Silver about this struggle Fry became a partner in what would become the creation of the Post-It note.
Through their random interaction Silver and Fry developed a staple form of communication in the office that never existed and supports brainstorming and connecting ideas like nothing before.
Steve Jobs was a famous opponent of remote work, believing that Apple employees’ best work came from accidentally bumping into other people, not sitting at home in front of an email inbox.
“Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions,” Mr. Jobs said. “You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
Under this passionate belief, Steve Jobs redesigned Pixar’s office with collaboration in mind. Rather than separating animators, executives and editors in different buildings, he brought everyone under the same roof — with the idea that chance encounters would lead to the cross-pollination of ideas. And it worked: John Lasseter, Pixar’s former Chief Creative Office said, “I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”
Steve Jobs’ decision to construct collaborative space for spontaneous interaction, influenced Google to reimagine their office with an emphasis on social-spatial science.
“There’s an element of social interaction that’s really important,” said Laszlo Bock, former top Human Resources officer for Google. “The reason tech companies have micro-kitchens and free snacks is not because they think people are going to starve between 9 a.m. and noon,” he said. “It’s because that’s where you get those moments of serendipity.”
And to back his point, Google credits meandering conversations over their free lunch program, intended to create “casual collisions” at work, with Gmail’s invention.
Atlassian has become well-known in the corporate and tech space for having an unmatched culture that supports and drives creativity beyond mindless coding and research analysis.
President Jay Simons says that “The culture is the same today at 3,000 people as it was when I joined – when there were only 100 people on staff.”
And how is that possible? They’ve created what they call a “culture of feedback.”
At Atlassian, peers are encouraged to regularly share feedback with one another through their online project management platform and through regular in-person check in’s.
The regular exchange of feedback builds trust and ultimately creates better teamwork. Scott Farquhar, their Co-Founder, and CEO says “When information ﬂows freely, it provides everyone in the organization with the right context to unlock their creative ideas.”
The 90-year-old Radio Flyer factory in Chicago is an exemplar of onsite innovation. They rely on their “Engine Room” ( a space full of whiteboards) for collaborative thinking and their Play Lab for onsite observation of their prototypes in use. While they, like many other companies, have gone partially remote during the pandemic, they plan to return to their idea incubator and continue the physical interaction with their space to foster creativity.
While we continue to adapt to the changes in our businesses, it’s valuable to keep in mind the way space affects the creative minds of our teams and the work they produce.
Read more about the work Pixar and other companies have done to structure space in a way that reflects company values, promotes connection, and prizes creativity.