Mr. Lucas had wanted this space for his employees to stretch out, while still strategically placing living rooms, complete with plush sofas, Arts & Crafts lamps, leather ottomans, and lit fireplaces every three hundred feet or so along the massive corridor. Stunning to say the least; awe-inspiring and drool-inducing to be sure. And sure enough, it was in these 'living rooms' where we would find the employees congregated: from some sitting quietly pouring over their laptops to groups in lively conversation, animated gestures, and physical postures that suggested they were all-in.
I don't know what happened to this ambience when the 250 employees inhabiting the 317,000 square feet of Big Rock office space moved to the Presidio in San Francisco. I don't know the square footage per person in the Presidio or whether there are living rooms with fireplaces around every corner. And more importantly, I don't know where these employees meet for those amazing conversations in which creativity is birthed. Perhaps Starbucks?
Another patron was equally astonished at the number of people, and as she and I waited near the cream and sweetener station for our drinks, we struck up a conversation. Marla is a mother of two and works part-time out of her house. When she really wants to concentrate, she comes to Starbucks. She described it as being 'trapped' - her compulsion to jump up and do laundry, pick up after the kids, or clean the showers was held at bay by removing her from that environment. She could be around other adults - that is, be in the midst of community, while still getting her own work done.
Starbucks seems to have captured that 'fireplace experience' at LucasArts, whether or not there's an actual fireplace. People have their own space (more likely through headphones than 1,300 square feet), yet at any moment a conversation could break out between four strangers, or three dyads, or two groups - and the possibility of creativity is born.
I think about Yahoo and wonder if bringing their employees back into the office actually thwarted any of this organic creativity stemming from these types of 'fireplace experiences' within employees' own communities. Understandably, Marissa Mayer is hoping to create the environment in which these experiences happen in-house to harness and leverage the innovation that emerges within this type of collaboration. Yet I wonder how much credence and credit we give our employees working even part-time from home that they're making their way toward connection, community, and creativity already. They want it as much as organizations need it.
Yet not every organization can afford 100 square feet per person let alone 1,300. And likely not all buildings are constructed nor legally coded for fireplaces. As organizations great and small, for-profit and NGOs, what is it we can do to create the environment in which we enable this organic, "Let's stop here, have a coffee, and brainstorm about our next big challenge" moment? Perhaps it's easier to look at what's getting in the way - furniture, walls, doors, stairs, coats and ties, or invisible boundaries like silos or lines of authority - and slowly begin to eliminate, or at least soften them one-by-one.
We were made to be with each other; relatedness is in our make-up. And as odd as I first thought it was to see such a packed coffee house at 9:30 on a Wednesday morning - when people would typically be boxed up in their cubicles, heads down and flourescent lights aglow - looking back on my enlightening LucasArts experience, it made perfect sense. More elbow room, only four large walls, natural light, outdoor seating, and sometimes even an indoor fireplace. If Luke Skywalker would have been one of the employees to move from Big Rock to the Presidio, I'm guessing more often than not, we would have found him at the local Starbucks.