What can be learned from a long walk? Teamwork.
The Bell Labs research facility in Murray Hill, New Jersey, home to some of the greatest minds, innovations and products of the 20th century was built in 1941.
The facility was designed with a 700 foot hallway connecting the research departments to each other and to the cafeteria. Why a 700 foot long hallway? Because Frank Jewett and Mervin Kelly at Bell Labs knew a longer walk between offices would increase the likelihood co-workers from different disciplines would pass, chat, and collaborate. They also knew communication was important for innovation and improvement, which is why they also adopted a strict open door policy for researchers, regardless of their level or seniority, encouraging entering and asking questions.
What can a team of 15 or even 40 learn from the Bell Labs model which had to accommodate 3,000 – 4,000 researchers? Well, there is a prevalent myth at small companies, particularly startups, as they grow that things were better “back in the day”. “Oh the good old days of working late into the night and doing it the hard way!” The truth is, it wasn’t better back then. As you grow the work gets better, more focused, and (for certain things) easier. Growth means there is a bigger team to rely on; more collective talent, more brain power, more heads for collaboration, more solutions and more hours back in the day. Stop to look around as you grow, there are probably more amazing people around than last year.
But one thing does change, and I’d argue this is the reason fast-growing companies yearn for the past. That thing is communication.
The challenge as companies grow is they require more physical space, and this often puts a real, literal distance between employees and teams. The entire company can no longer lean in at 9 PM and ask “how did we do today”? Teams get bigger and more specialized, decisions are made by teams, not by the company as a whole over lunch or in a rental car on the way to a meeting. So how do you keep the small, collaborative, intimate feel without adding a 700 foot hallway to the bathroom? Build systems which encourage, embrace and create value in cross team communications (particularly with the new guy).
At Percolate we are building systems now to ensure we continue to maintain our open, questioning culture whether we have eight people or 3,000 sprawling across several international offices. In January we launched our first internal product to help solve this: Barista.
Barista was built to encourage all staff to ask and answer questions about Percolate, technologies, best practices, the neighborhood around the office, anything in fact. Anyone can ask and anyone can answer. Each question can be tagged with topics which can be subscribed to, you can even tag a question with an individual you feel may be best to answer it. The team also thought through asking questions well, as you write a new question we prompt you with similar questions which were previously asked; perhaps you’re not alone in wondering who painted our bathroom signs (Answer: Erik Dies).
As you grow communication is key, more so than an impressive reception area or a pool table; the systems real and digital that encourage communication, questions and curiosity ultimately matter more. Barista is the first step towards realizing our own 700 foot hallway and open door policy, but in a digital format that provides value to the whole organization and not just those in earshot of a good idea discussed over lunch.
If you’re interested in Bell Labs, I highly recommend Jon Gertner’s ‘The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation’