“Zappos isn’t alone in its efforts to try to engineer serendipity into the workplace. Years ago, Steve Jobs designed the headquarters for Pixar with centrally located bathrooms so people would run into each other. AT&T, Plantronics, Twitter, Capgemini, and many other companies have sent teams to co-working spaces, where they work alongside people from other companies. Many people think the way to encourage chance encounters and spur innovation is to make companies more like cities. Zappos is opening its lobby as a free co-working space so people can mingle with employees from other companies and visitors, like in a hotel lobby. “Those ground floor connection points, we see that as magic.” (Daft 2016)
I’m back in school, we are five weeks into the term. My class this quarter is on building organizations for the 21st century. It is one of my favorite classes so far as it is deeply rooted in change and organizational structure and the impact of process and technology on outcome. I am studying what I live and in the process finding out I am pretty darn good at what I do.
The paragraph above was pulled from my textbook assignment for the week. The top was on the benefit of collisions. Not the kind you have in your car or at the grocery store, but the happenstance moments where two people unexpectedly run into each other. The author cited a study that found voluntary collaboration increased by 20% for every 100 feet of special overlap between employees. Studies also found that in organizations where people were forced to ‘collide’ change happened easier and more often.
Until I read this I would never have thought about bathrooms as a change vehicle, but I guess I should have. Reading how centralizing bathrooms helped drive creativity and change at Pixar reminded me of a client I had a few years ago. The firm has been around about 100 years and has a very hard time changing. Despite a massive change initiative a few years ago I just this week heard they are reverting back to very old school thinking, much to their detriment and possibly at risk their long-term survival. I had the opportunity, while working with this firm, to visit many of their offices and at least one them was legendary for its bathrooms. In what I would consider a small sized office space they have nearly 20 bathrooms. There are so many that it was a game for new visitors to see how many they could use in a short stay.
The number of bathrooms had been the brain child of the founder. He wanted enough bathrooms that people would never have to wait for one. The goal being they would not waste time going to the bathroom or run into someone else at the bathroom and stand and talk. He was trying to prevent collisions. In many ways his goal was successful, as he also did not believe in change unless absolutely necessary. More than 40 years after his death the company still struggles to remove itself from that legacy. I made lots of recommendations while working with them, looking back I wish I had suggested boarding up half the bathrooms.
Too often in business we are looking for the fastest, most efficient way to get a task done, but the collision concept and the office of bathrooms serve as a reminder that it is the wasted time we try to cut that often hides the innovation and creativity we are striving for. What will you do differently to allow yourself and your employees more time to crash creatively?
Daft, Richard L.. Organization Theory and Design (Page 421). South-Western College Pub. Kindle Edition.