Steve Job’s Alternative to the Open Plan Office
Pixar got it right. Either spend big money on individual offices and open spaces, or don’t bother.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Pixar under Steve Jobs was famously creative and innovative. What's not so famous is that Jobs tried, and rejected, the classic open plan, opting instead for individual offices combined with large areas without desks or work areas.
The classic open plan office attempts to simultaneously 1) create a "collaborative" environment that fosters "innovation" and 2) reduce the amount of floor space (and therefore cost) per person by putting everyone (except managers) in a large room.
As such, the classic open plan office is basically a cubicle farm but without the cubicle walls. According to the absolutely fascinating newsletter OfficeSnapshots.com (check out that link for pix of Pixar's offices):
"[Pixar] having tried a much more open, cubicle-based plan at their previous headquarters and noting the difficulty in getting work done, Pixar opted to go with a much more closed environment this time around." (emphasis mine)
Rather than stick everyone in a huge room (as with 99.9% of open plan designs), Pixar created units consisting of five to six individual offices with a central gathering place in the middle. Employees are free to decorate and ornament these individual offices however they like.
Peer-reviewed research backs Pixar's design decision. Researchers at the University of Sydney recently surveyed 42,764 workers recently revealed that employees would much rather have private offices than any other floor plan (and massively prefer them to open plan designs.)
In addition to individual offices, Pixar has a huge atrium that has areas--not work areas--that everyone uses, such as employee mailboxes, foosball, a fitness center and so forth. This common area makes certain that people from different groups run into each other in a regular basis.
Pixar's campus also has a very large outdoor area that includes a Greek-style amphitheater, gardens, a swimming pool, and so forth. Again, the emphasis isn't on trying to cram people together while they're working but rather to increase the likelihood that they'll meet on social terms.
Unlike the typical open plan office, which looks like a hotel lobby filled with desks, Pixar's headquarters is all about creating a feeling of expansiveness not when people are trying to get work done but when they're taking a break from getting work done.
Needless to say, it would have been far cheaper in terms of floor space cost for Pixar to implement a classic open plan office. However, Jobs clearly felt expansive open areas and individual offices was worth the investment even in an area where real estate is extremely costly.
The message here is clear--unless you're willing to spent substantial money to create an environment that combines both privacy and large open spaces (like Pixar), you're better off building your company around a work-from-home model (like Automaticc, who makes Wordpress).
What's fatal and stupid is cramming people who need to get work done into a huge, noisy room that's full of distractions... and then pretending that you're creating a collaborative environment. Unfortunately, this is exactly how 99.9% of open plan offices are implemented.