"We have to learn how to work together, or we fail alone."
For his book Lehrer spent time at Pixar, the award-winning animation studio. Pixar's headquarters near Oakland, California, features an atrium lobby that contains the building's mailboxes, cafeteria and even the bathrooms, the design the brainchild of Steve Jobs, who bought the company in 1986. Everybody has to come through the atrium, which forces people of all types -- and from all disciplines -- to mix, mingle and exchange ideas.
"The atrium initially might seem like a waste of space," "The Incredibles" director Brad Bird told Lehrer. "But Steve realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen. So he made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company."
The same ethos has ruled at some notable innovation shops. As Jon Gertner details in his book "The Idea Factory," when Bell Labs -- one of the great pioneers in business and engineering, where the integrated circuit and the telecommunications satellite were invented -- designed a new campus in northern New Jersey, head man Mervin Kelly created interdisciplinary groups from a variety of sciences.
The groups also featured a variety of personalities; one unit paired the aggressive, outgoing physicist William Shockley with the pensive electrical engineer John Bardeen. Along with Walter Brattain, the two won the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention of the transistor.
Bell Labs also had the right mind-set for creativity: patient, curious and willing to fail. As one metallurgist put it, "A research man is endlessly searching to find a use for something that has no use."
John Seely Brown, who oversaw another innovative laboratory, Xerox's PARC -- the birthplace of the computer mouse and the laser printer -- says putting people with a variety of interests in close proximity was key to the lab's success.
"We all ate together. We had long tables in the dining room, purposely designed so you were constantly eating with other fields," he says. "At lunch we were mixing it up all the time, at coffee mixing it up all the time. We were constantly talking with each other, but with different lenses on."
'Ideas are fragile'
Office designers have gotten the message. In fact, they've become evangelists for it.
"More and more, we're able to say there's a lot of value being lost in the (standardized) model," says Greg Parsons, Herman Miller's vice president of landscape environments. "Standardizing everything isn't necessarily the way to generate creativity."
More than 40 years after the cube took over, Herman Miller's rival Steelcase has created what it calls "human-centered design." Part of that, says Steelcase design director Brett Kincaid, is allowing inspiration to breathe.
"Ideas are fragile," he says.
Steelcase has its own version of PARC's dining room -- one that refines the idea beyond long tables and ad hoc lunch discussions.
At its Grand Rapids, Michigan, headquarters, the bottom floor is dominated by the WorkCafe. The area used to be a warren of basement conference rooms but has been renovated into a round-the-clock haven for workers to meet and eat -- or get away from their own offices and cubes for a while to work and think.
The WorkCafe is expansive and welcoming, with zippy touches -- a bit of artwork here, a gleam of stainless steel there -- and bright lighting. The layout flows smoothly, with spots for small groups over here, large contingents over there, and quiet and solitary individuals around a corner. Walk down a broad staircase from the lobby and take your pick of settings, or go from one to the other.
Parts of it evoke a futuristic gathering spot, with blond wood, white tables, orange stools and small, sleek high-tech pods, complete with what Steelcase calls "Pucks" -- plug-in devices for laptops and gizmos. Another area is more conventional, like the counters and seats of a classic diner, though it's given an artsy tinge thanks to a tall, gleaming sculpture engraved with Steelcase patent numbers. Farther away, there's a cozy, librarylike quarter, with bookshelves, upholstered seats and small tables, perfect for solitary thinking over a cup of coffee.
Surrounding it all are conference rooms of various shapes and sizes, complete with cameras, large-screen monitors, information displays (on touchscreen tablets) and small alcoves for gathering your thoughts -- or information. It's all accommodating to mobile technology, since many of us don't have to stay glued to our desks anymore.
The WorkCafe, which opened in November, was intended to encourage communication, thinking and creativity -- and, based on the constant flow of employees visiting throughout the day, it appears to have succeeded in its task.
"Employees are choosing to meet here, and not just because there's a good latte," says James Ludwig, Steelcase design vice president. "It's a place to escape to work, instead of escape from work."
It's also taken cues from some of the ideas designers have already put into place in the company's upstairs offices, including nods to mobility and work-life balance.
"This project allowed us to say, here are the trends we're seeing -- and how we ourselves want to work, and where we see the future of work is going," says design manager Cherie Johnson.
That's a philosophy worth following, adds Frank Graziano, a researcher with the company. He observes that offices tend to have "knowledge flows," "gatekeepers" and "hubs," and if you're aware of those dynamics, you can shape the physical space accordingly. Understanding office dynamics means learning to understand individual employees, and where they stand in the overall environment, he says.
Moreover, it's not like most workers do the same thing all the time, or that each department is one-size-fits-all. There are microcultures and varying work styles, and different work modes people adopt depending on a situation, says designer Julie Barnhart Hoffman. These include quiet-focused work, socialization with feedback, collaboration and learning. The company builds spaces to accommodate each of those work modes; after all, Steelcase doesn't just make office environments for others.
"We're testing our own ideas," Hoffman says. "We're kind of our own customer."