Thursday 7 January 2021 5:00 am

Steve Jobs had it right: the office is a hub for creativity

Rupert Dean is co-founder of x+why, a co-working office for purpose-driven organisations.

IN 1986 Steve Jobs became the majority shareholder of a little-known company called the Lucasfilm Graphics Group.

For the small sum of $5 million, Jobs acquired a motley crew of 40 computer scientists and graphic artists. But it wasn’t long before the company started making a loss. Products weren’t shifting. Something had to give.

Under Jobs’ leadership, Graphics Group went through a major rebrand. It became Pixar Animation Studios and upped sticks to a new site near Oakland, California, where a new state of the art studio was built.

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The studio housed an atrium at its centre, containing meeting rooms, cafes, mailboxes and social spaces. At first many saw it as a waste of space. But before long it became a vital part of Pixar’s company culture.

It was a hub where people could meet, discuss, share and collaborate. It was a place of community. And Pixar boomed.

Jobs was ahead of his time in understanding the importance of community in the workplace, and the role the workspace has in creating it. But 2020 has turned this idea on its head.

Forced isolation during the coronavirus pandemic has made it harder than ever to keep workplace communities alive.

Millions of Britons have said their wellbeing was affected by feelings of loneliness during the initial weeks of lockdown. And 40 percent said working from home left them missing “office banter”.

Even before the pandemic the importance of community at work was well established. Research shows that workplace friendships can lead to higher productivity and engagement with the job.

We don’t know when things will return to normal. But the pandemic cannot be an excuse for letting the workplace community drop down the list of priorities.

There are actions employers can – and should –  take to cultivate community that go beyond just catching up over drinks via video call. And having flexible spaces to meet when you can is a great start.

You don’t need an office at all times for the whole team. Almost a year of on-and-off homeworking has proved that. But having hubs for employees to meet, work and socialise safely is still critical. This doesn’t mean paying through the nose for a semi-occupied office floor, or signing proscriptive leases that tie you in to costly contracts – these can be substituted for flexible leases that offer a lot more freedom during an unpredictable time. 

These spaces can be located in smaller, commuter-belt and suburban hubs to cater to the predicted demand for shorter commutes and a better work/life balance post-Covid.

Just eight percent of workers say they’re ready to make a long work commute upon returning to a physical workspace, and more than half are interested in having a workspace closer to home. These hubs also let employees from different organisations form their own micro-communities in the absence of their wider teams.

As we stare down the barrel of who knows how many circuit-breaking lockdowns, we cannot forget the fundamental importance of human interaction at work.

Steve Jobs knew the workspace had as much to do with creating a workplace community as the employees themselves. We cannot lose sight of this whilst waiting for a return to normality, when normality may not be what the workforce wants to return to.

Now more than ever, business leaders must get creative with the way they use space to cultivate a workplace community fit for the post-Covid world.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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