Think back to the last problem your team had to solve in your office. Maybe it was a software bug, maybe an account wanted different work than you had produced, maybe your boss wanted you to do something you thought was impossible. Whatever it was, it’s possible that it was resolved it in a formal meeting, but the far more likely scenario is that it was solved due to a casual conversation. At the water cooler, in the lunchroom, maybe even over an after-work beer with a coworker. Wherever it was, the importance of casual, sort of “off the cuff” conversations cannot be understated. So how do you create an environment where these conversations can happen?
Some of the biggest minds in business, and particularly in the tech industry, began with the physical workplace. Steve Jobs famously designed the Pixar offices to “promote encounters and unplanned collaborations.” Countless other Silicon Valley companies have since designed their offices with a similar goal in mind. Without open offices to promote that unplanned collaboration, Jobs believed that “you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity.” In order to ensure that employees would actually get up and leave their desks, he even constructed the cafeteria and the vast majority of the building’s bathrooms off of the huge central atrium, engineering his vision into existence. But why is an open workspace important?
Let's think about the office dynamics that are in play in a traditional “cube farm” kind of an office. Workers are separated from each other in an effort to help them focus on their individual tasks. Managers and other senior personnel have their own offices separated from the other cubicles, creating a divide between the average worker and their supervisor. The logic behind this is easy to see: the less interaction workers have with one another, the fewer distractions they will have, and the more productive they will be. However, it stifles creativity and collaborative thinking.
By affording employees the opportunities to get out of their individual workspaces and into a more open, public, and creative space, you create an environment where people from varying teams and seniority levels can have a casual chat that sparks inspiration and creative problem solving. This kind of a setup allows for employees with different strengths and weaknesses to work together to innovate new ideas.
For "serendipitous" ideas to arise, the physical office is only part of the answer. More importantly, coworkers must want and be able interact. The most innovative ideas come when people have varying viewpoints or are from different backgrounds. So the first step is often building social relationships. One of the most common conversations to hear in the break room is about sports. Imagine that two coworkers meet in the break room, one from the United States and the other is from India. They start talking about sports, and the conversation shifts to baseball. From there, they begin to discuss the differences between baseball and cricket (which are numerous). The two coworkers start to build a personal relationship with one another, opening opportunities for future collaboration.
But employees must feel comfortable communicating for these conversations to occur. In diverse companies, communication challenges often prevent those with different language backgrounds from connecting in this casual manner. Language barriers often segregate employees into cliques based on their native language, reducing the opportunity for those varying viewpoints to interact. Taking steps to improve communication skills may be the key to that next spark of inspiration.
Create an open workspace, both physically and culturally, to ensure don't miss the opportunity for the casual interactions at your company to inspire the next brilliant idea.
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