How Office Spaces in Silicon Valley Inspire a Culture of Innovation

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Research shows that limiting the space between desks and improving air circulation increase office productivity. But enough with research: How does Silicon Valley do it?

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ZAFAR

The first time I was in a conference room at the Google campus in Mountain View, the heart of Silicon Valley, I was surprised to see two projectors affixed to the ceiling. It's not uncommon that a conference room be armed with a center console on the table--amid cables and various adapters and chargers. But two projectors?

As I walked through the Google building, I continued to see two projectors in each conference room - one labeled Red and the other Yellow. I finally had to ask somebody what the story was behind this. I found out that one projector is for the person who is presenting in the room and the other is for displaying the notes being taken in real time - so that everyone can see what is being recorded. All meeting minutes are taken this way, and they can be retrieved by anyone after several weeks or months.

An important and under-appreciated aspect of building culture is the use of space. In the gallery below, you can see a few photos I've snapped of the offices at Google, Intel, and a start-up hive called Plug and Play Center. I think these photos show three distinct things: a playful atmosphere, a proud emphasis on tradition, and the importance of close quarters.

It's not easy defining "company culture," but my favorite definition is: how things get done when there are no written rules for it. Culture may just be the hardest thing to change in an organization. Silicon Valley is all about a certain environment that encourages people to innovate. It is not possible to create this without establishing a culture of competition and of tremendous sense of purpose. It speaks to the power of the culture that the same graduate students who back in India or elsewhere abroad were once secretive and reluctant to collaborate, and then come to Silicon Valley and transform themselves within months. It is the power of the culture.

And space helps to create culture. It orients people. It tells them not only where to sit, but also how to interact. Increasing the amount of light, decreasing the space between desks, improving air circulation, clearing office clutter, and even changing color schemes have all been shown to improve worker productivity, according to any number of research papers and studies.

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I don't know which of the studies are right and which are wrong. I only know my own experience. I'm now running my seventh start-up. We're located in a building that houses over 200 young companies, often in their infancy. The informal interaction at the cafeteria, weekly talks, and beer bashes create conversations and interactions that otherwise could not be forced.

Perhaps the most important part of designing a work space to foster innovation is to create pockets of interaction rather than isolation. Working in close quarters is a standard part of start-up culture. Six of us sitting in one large room--with six feet of desk space to our name-- are often overhearing each other's conversations. This creates a sense of comfort and a general sense that you know what is going on. There is a sense of urgency that comes from knowing what is at stake. It's a bit like being in the trenches at war alongside a fellow solider--a camaraderie that is hard to create under normal conditions.

There is some real science that tells us that creating pools of isolation in closed-door offices creates less collaboration (though perhaps more privacy). The location of the water fountain, arrangements of couches or an area for people to informally chat during a coffee break changes the tone of conversation and creates opportunities to collaborate, and this is where ideas spark, discussions ensue, and innovation happens. Innovation seldom happens in isolation. If we don't think about intentionally creating opportunities for people to interact and collaborate, we can't wonder why we don't see breakthroughs.

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Naeem Zafar is a faculty member at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley. He is author an author, speaker, and entrepreneur working on his seventh startup in the area of enterprise mobility.

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