Google meeting room designed for collaboration and creative brainstorming

How Bathrooms and Coffee Makers Can Drive Collaboration

Those casual run-ins that lead to great ideas? Smart companies are driving them with strategic office design.

So the newfound wisdom says your open office plan has made your team less collaborative and less likely to talk to each other. Instead, they huddle behind their screens and detach from the office with headphones.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

CEOs and architects are increasingly using design to subtly nudge us toward certain activities, effectively shaping our behavior. Call it a bit of choice architecture, and it’s being employed by more companies that want to get people to strike up serendipitous water cooler discussions that lead to those great “Aha” ideas and collaborations.

Companies are widening hallways for casual conversations. They’re making stairwells more open and thereby more attractive than imposed quiet of elevators. They’re hanging whiteboards at the top of stairs so people will gather together. The hope is that people bump into each other more often and share ideas, get to know each other, and build trust and connection. All of which doesn’t happen easily over email.  

The design features, of course, are no guarantee that people will actually do as intended. But the hope is they pave the way, making it more likely to happen. If it does, the end result could mean more creativity, increased productivity, better collaboration, and hopefully a happier, healthier workforce.

We take a look at how innovative companies have used design to build the workplace of tomorrow.

1. Remove the Corner Office

Hubspot Chief Operating Officer JD Sherman put creativity at the top of the agenda when he designed the software firm’s 120,000-square-foot headquarters in Cambridge, MA. The software company’s COO wanted to ensure the space encouraged chance interactions between groups — the kind of interactions that lead to surprising dialogue and spark inspiration among the firm’s 700-plus workers.

Sherman added some homey features such as comfortable seating around a fireplace and even a hammock for napping, which has shown to be good for creative juices. But Hubspot took another more drastic step to boost innovation: no corner offices for the C-suite executives. Without desks, executives would be forced to work in the new common areas, where they could easily gab with employees. Sherman said that some of the best ideas have come about that way.

2. Strategically Place the Bathrooms

At Pixar, the secret to collaboration was bathrooms. The eccentric Steve Jobs designed a large atrium at Pixar that would house all employees for a company meeting and also serve as campus spine, which people crossed multiple times a day. The Apple founder also wanted only one set of bathrooms in the office’s central atrium and none in either of the building’s two wings, so everyone had to use the same set of bathrooms. The goal? More interaction.

And he desired interaction between more than just members of the same teams, so he placed animators, executives, and editors together in the same buildings for more cross-pollination. John Lasseter, Pixar’s former Chief Creative Officer said it worked: “I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”

Since Pixar’s experiment, other large companies including Google, Samsung, and Facebook followed suit by designing buildings with the intent to lure workers into public spaces and hallways that prompt interaction and hopefully, surprising new insights. Samsung’s new building, according to the company’s VP Scott Birnbaum, “is really designed to spark not just collaboration but that innovation you see when people collide.”

3. Ditch the Desks

Telenor, the Norwegian telecommunications company, was ahead of the curve when it designed its Oslo headquarters in 2003 with “hot desking,” or no assigned desks, and flexible spaces that could be reworked as needed by teams. While some firms now employ this concept due to expensive real estate and an increasingly mobile workforce, Telenor experimented earlier for a different reason: to improve productivity.

Of course, unassigned seating can cause stress among employees who aren’t used to that kind of office space. Companies should provide plenty of support to workers, including those who spend most of their time out of the office, such as sales people, and let people reserve desks in advance. It’s also a good idea to offer “owned space,” such as an individual lockers and add a mix of booths, couches, and lounge chairs in addition to desks.

For Telenor, hot-desking worked. People made decisions much faster, and ultimately, the deskless workforce adopted what CEO Jon Fredrik Baksadas called “an attacking mindset,” or a boost in confidence and communication skills and ultimately, more business productivity.

4. Cluster the Conference Rooms And Labs

In a similar vein to Pixar, more companies are choosing to cluster conference rooms in one area to ensure various groups of people mix and run into each other. Boston-based Takeda Pharmaceuticals took a similar approach to its research labs, placing them at the center of its office building.

But Takeda took it one step further: The company enclosed the laboratories in glass.

This literal transparency let employees see inside and outside the labs and fostered better connections between colleagues, which led to more sharing of ideas across disciplines. It might not work for every company, however, since such visibility might harm needed security or hinder privacy in sensitive situations.

But for Takeda, it proved successful. Designers even studied people’s behavior around the labs and placed chairs and whiteboards in places where workers tended to pause and talk. So while a drug developer waited for a nearby conference room, she might run into a lab worker who could first-hand pass along the results of a test — without distracting email ping-pong.

5. Invest in Coffee Makers

Boston data analytics firm Humanyze designed its new offices with coffee makers in mind. The company, which makes devices that track employees’ activity, found that much like the old-fashioned water cooler, people struck up chats over coffee machines and often, those exchanges led to great ideas.

Humanyze had hard data to prove it, following its study of a large pharmaceutical company. The drugmaker ripped out its coffee makers and invested several hundred thousand dollars to build a few bigger ones — large enough so each one would serve 120 employees — as well as a larger cafeteria.

Soon, sales ticked upward. According to data collected by Humanyze, every time a sales person increased their interaction by 10%, their individual sales climbed by the same amount as well.

Some of these tricks might be out of reach for companies with limited funds or little control over their existing office space— not everyone can install transparent conference rooms or order strategically located bathrooms. But the examples above can offer inspiration for even smaller changes that inspire people to get up and talk to each other, whether it’s a desk among the masses dedicated to rotating execs from the C-suite or putting latte machines in an atrium to draw people from different departments. Good design, big or small, can nudge behavior, and hopefully, conversations and creativity as well.