The best office design for collaboration is also the cheapest

Apple's plans for new headquarters in Cupertino

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

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

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.

Towards a more humane workplace

If you want to mistreat someone, it helps to think of them as something other than human. And so, unfortunately, you’ll notice the same tactics used at work as in some of the greatest atrocities against humanity.

Yet there’s hope – and evidence – that the social platforms firms are now introducing will make your firm a more humane place.

De-humanizing tactics

“Humanize”, by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, makes the compelling case that the mechanistic, industrial model has influenced us to treat each other more like cogs at work than like people. And Seth Godin echoed this in a recent blog post.

But the industrial model has only exacerbated what seems to be a natural tendency.

Some fascinating studies show how easy it is to create an environment where people mistreat each other. For example, the “Robbers’ Cave” experiment, involving 22 eleven-year-old boys in a 3-week summer camp, showed how easily we can be divided into arbitrary groups and drawn into conflict with each other.

And a study by Albert Bandura (popularized in “Influencer”) showed how subjects in a “training experiment” would deliver significantly different levels of electrical shock depending on a single one-word label applied to the unseen “trainees” (Literally: “They seem nice.” versus “They seem like animals.”)

Bandura found this kind of dehumanizing labeling is one of four strategies – moral justification, dehumanization, minimizing, and displacing responsibility – that “allow individuals to act in ways that are clearly disconnected from their moral compass.”

A self-evident truth

A photo by iO Tillett Wright as part of

A photo by iO Tillett Wright as part of

One example of combatting this tendency to label and dehumanize was presented by the artist iO Tillett Wright who recently spoke about gender diversity. In her project,, she decided “to photograph anyone who is not 100% straight” and created 1000s of simple, beautiful portraits that defy labels.

“My goal is to show the humanity that exists in every one of us through the simplicity of a face….I challenge you to look into the faces of these people and tell them they deserve less than any other human being.”

Self-evident truths at work

The problems associated with de-humanizing people aren’t limited to social science experiments and issues of diversity. The authors of “Influencer” described why corporations also need to focus on the issue.

“If you’re a leader attempting to break down silos, encourage collaboration, and engage teamwork across your organization…moral disengagement always accompanies political, combative, and self-centered behavior.”

Part of their advice? “To reengage people morally – and to rehumanize targets that people readily and easily abuse – drop labels and substitute names.”

Evidence & optimism

A social platform

A social platform

Social collaboration platforms take this idea – moving from labels to names and photos – and makes it a fundamental part of the work environment. And because the platforms are so highly interactive, the benefits go well beyond that.

At my own firm, I find that widespread use of the platform makes it harder to objectify people in 4 ways.

  1. You see faces everywhere – not just in the group directory but every time someone contributes something.
  2. You tend to know more about people. As someone interacts online, you pick up more information about them – “ambient intimacy” – than you’d ever get from a simple profile.
  3. People tend to be helpful. Whether people are having a bad day or a bad project or just have a question, people on line are eager to offer help or at least sympathy. And those simple acts of generosity help build relationships that make collaboration and cooperation easier.
  4. Bullies don’t like sunlight. There will always be bad behavior at work (companies are made up of people, after all), but few at work want their bad behavior to be public. The more employees work out loud and attract public feedback for their contributions, the more difficult it is for someone to unfairly diminish them.

It’s true that the main reason businesses are implementing social platforms is because they’ll generate commercial value. But the cultural side effect – creating a more humane work environment that respects and celebrates individuals – is priceless.

A Genius Bar in every building

Over the past few months, I’ve written about using social tools and practices to save money, about a framework for influencing behavior, and about applying the Fun Theory at work.

Today, I want to describe a project I’m working on to show how you can tie all those ideas together, unlocking value and enthusiasm even for mundane corporate goals.

The mundane corporate goal

One way firms can save money is by having people use their own mobile device instead of corporate-owned Blackberries. (Usually referred to as BYOD or Bring Your Own Device.) In a large firm, there could be many thousands of corporate mobiles and the costs could easily be tens of millions every year.

But how would you get people to use their own device instead?

What your firm might normally do

One way to change behavior

One way to change behavior

Normally, you would just change the policy: “We will no longer issue devices or reimburse employees for mobile expenses.”

You’d still want employees to have mobile access to work, though. So you might accompany your policy change with an awareness campaign, making sure everyone knew about the change and asking for their cooperation.

A different approach: A Genius Bar in every building

Changes to policy are powerful and raising awareness is important. But you can get better results – and do less damage to employee engagement – with an approach that taps into all of the 6 sources of influence described in “Influencer” by Kerry Patterson et al.


So we decided to try something different and more positive. We noticed how many people loved using their iPad for work once they got it set up and how they were often eager to help others. What if we could somehow connect those people and form a social movement that drove adoption while reducing costs?

“A Genius Bar in every building” started as a blog post on our social collaboration platform. It described how local volunteers could staff pop-up Genius Bars and help people set up their iPhones and iPads. Over the next few days, others contributed ideas and offered to volunteer. Soon, we had organized our first 2 events.

The initial events weren’t smooth or professional, but we learned a lot. And we were struck by how grateful everyone was. (“Thank you so much for doing this!”) Afterwards, one of the volunteers wrote about what could have gone better. Another person wrote down detailed instructions for future events. Someone else started an online sign-up sheet for volunteers in every location.

Now, we have events planned in a growing number of buildings all around the world. People are continuing to contribute suggestions for improving things. And with each event, we create more positive stories, attract more volunteers, and expand the movement.

Applying the Influencer Checklist

Is this all we can do? In using the Influencer checklist, we see the Genius Bars help us in 4 ways:

6 sources of Influence

6 sources of Influence

☑ Personal Ability: Having mobile experts in each lobby makes it convenient for people to enable their devices.

☑ Social motivation: Seeing a crowd gathered around an Apple logo can go a long way to motivate others to join. We also use the social collaboration platform to share stories of how other people at all levels are using their own devices.

☑ Social ability: By crowd-sourcing volunteers, we build up a network of experts who could help people locally and complement the small team of mobile engineers.

☑ Structural ability: A simple physical thing like having a “Blackberry Bin” makes it easier for people to give back their devices.

To tap into all 6 sources of influence, we’ll still need to change the policy to help with structural motivation – e.g. changing the reimbursement policies over time so it becomes increasingly unattractive to use a corporate device. We’re not doing enough to appeal to those who aren’t personally motivated to give up their corporate Blackberry. (Perhaps the “Speed Camera Lottery” from last week’s post might be applicable here.)

We have a choice

The point is that even for something as mundane as reducing mobile costs at work, we have a choice:

We can rely on crude carrots and sticks to change behavior.

Or we can care.

Care about the people affected. Care about producing more sustainable results. Care enough to try something different so we can make work more effective and more fulfilling.

Applying the Fun Theory at work

Fun at work

Fun at work

Sometimes, people simply don’t want to do what you want or need them to do.

Then what?

For people at work, the main motivational techniques involve money and fear. But when you’re trying to change behavior, there are 6 sources of influence. And increasing at least one of those 6, personal motivation, can be more fun and more effective than you might have ever experienced at your firm.

(Note: although it turns out to be a simple concept, the secret ingredient you’ll need is at the end of the post.)

What we normally do

This week at work, I had to take a required online course and hit some buttons in the performance review system. If you’ve ever had to do tasks like this at work, you might recognize this pattern:

  1. You get an email instructing you about required tasks and why they’re important.
  2. You get more emails reminding you about the deadline.
  3. Your manager gets a report detailing poor completion rates.
  4. You get a threatening email detailing consequences for not completing the task.
  5. Those who failed to complete the task receive one or more penalties.

This oft-repeated pattern leaves everyone feeling irritated and disengaged. Yet the whole thing could have been fun, with more people completing the tasks more quickly.

The Fun Theory: The famous examples

The Fun Theory, an initiative of Volkswagen, is a simple concept:

“…something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.”

Piano StairsIt started with a few inspired projects. The 2-minute videos that capture the before and after are beautiful and delightful (and watched over 30 million times). One asked:

“Can we get more people to choose the stairs by making it fun to do?”

So they transformed a subway staircase into “Piano Stairs”. And 66% more people than usual chose the stairs over the escalators.

Bottle Bank ArcadeThen they focused on garbage and asked:

“Can we get more people to throw their rubbish in the bin by making it fun to do?”

“Can we get more people to use the bottle bank by making it fun to do?”

And by transforming bins into something that gave people a bit of joy, they transformed the experience. As a result, people deposited 230% more trash in the “World’s Deepest Bin” than in a bin nearby. They used the “Bottle Bank Arcade” 50 times more than the traditional machine.

Watch the videos. Look at the faces. See and hear the joy. No threats, no penalties. Just evidence that appealing to an individual’s intrinsic motivation is better on many levels.

Fun everywhere

Speed Camera LotteryThe Fun Theory now sponsors an open competition to recognize “thoughts, ideas and inventions that help prove the fun theory.” The winner of this year’s prize, Kevin Richardson, asked:

 “Can we get more people to obey the speed limit by making it fun to do?”

Kevin’s ingenious idea was “The Speed Camera Lottery”.

It’s routine these days for cities to photograph speeders and send them a summons. But what about those that don’t speed? Kevin’s idea was to take a portion of the revenue from speeding tickets and use that to fund a lottery. Every person who obeyed the law was automatically entered and, in effect, given a free lottery ticket.

That simple idea – providing a reward for doing the right thing – resulted in a 22% decrease in the average speed. The Speed Camera Lottery and the numerous other entries in the competition expanded my sense of the possible applications of fun.

The secret ingredient

You don’t need an engineering team to make things fun. Inspired people have even made men’s bathroom’s cleaner (“80% less spillage!”) by simply applying decals of a small fly in each urinal. (A wide range of targets is now available.)

So, if even the most basic behaviors can be made more fun while measurably improving effectiveness, why don’t we see more of this at work?

The secret is having employees who care, who are engaged.

Disengaged employees at all levels rely on the same crude, ineffective carrots and sticks we’ve used at work for decades. For them, motivation is something you do to people. But as famed psychologist Edward Deci put it:

“Instead of asking ‘How can I motivate people?’ we should be asking ‘How can I create the conditions within which people will motivate themselves?’”

If you want to change people’s behavior, if you really care about your job and the people around you, then tap into all 6 sources of influence. And make it fun.