Was Steve Jobs right about innovation?

The former Apple CEO’s main criticism of remote working? That it was impossible to innovate if employees weren’t together during the work week. Here, Claire Bridges, founder of Now Go Create and author of In Your Creative Element, explores how leaders can make the reality different

Years before it was on-trend to have open-plan offices, communal eating spaces, free yoga and state-of-the-art coffee machines, Steve Jobs realised that serendipitous encounters between Pixar staff from diverse backgrounds and departments made for better ideas.

The idea of a workplace campus is common today, but Jobs appeared to have the ability to see round corners into the future of office design. He even engineered the placement of the bathrooms at Pixar to ensure that people would bump into each other frequently.

Pre-pandemic, Apple’s HQ was a never-ending loop, where people would stumble across new colleagues every single day, deliberately, by accident. Meanwhile, over at Google, staff used a basic human need to drive interaction – food. No part of the office was said to be more than 150 feet from food, while employees were encouraged to “snack constantly” and bump into coworkers from different teams across the company.

However, what happens now that these tech giants (like many other businesses) have their staff working from home? What does the current new ‘normal’ – with many of us working from home, alone, living on Zoom calls and seeing our colleagues infrequently – mean for creativity and innovation?

In the spirit of solving the big issues we are all facing, in our lives and businesses, we have to hope that Jobs’ assertion that innovation is impossible if people are not physically together is wrong. Because what the world needs more than ever is big ideas – and even bigger action.

The truth is that we have to work harder today to make innovation happen. Just because we’re not in the same place doesn’t mean it can’t occur, but we need to invest time and energy and allow for ‘creative collisions’ to take place across the digital space.

Make creativity visible
Your data, fledgling ideas and concepts need to be visible to everyone on the team if you want to spark ideas and get the best from the collective hive mind. Use one of the many online whiteboard tools to create a space where people can interact and ideas can be easily viewed and added to. Many come with ready-to-go templates such as a SWOT. You have a blank space to draw and add shapes, text or Post-it notes – just as you would in a physical meeting space.

Use collaborative tech
In the absence of staff sharing bathrooms, it’s important for businesses to be clever with the technology they use to facilitate interactions. Try a tool such as Candor – you begin by sending your question out to members of your group – making it clear that you want them to come up with ideas remotely. All of the ideas are submitted via the app/desktop tool to whoever is organising the session. These ideas can then be shared remotely. All of the ideas are up for discussion – they can be eliminated, grouped together or expanded on to make them better. The tool then lets participants vote for their favourites.

Acknowledge differences
Creativity can’t be forced, so allow quiet time and space for reflective thinking (even online) for everyone, particularly the more introverted, who might be intimidated by enforced interactions. Small online breakout rooms are good for more intimate, paired conversations.

Create shared moments
Work is about more than the work. Creativity is able to thrive when people feel good personally. So, think about what experiences you could create for your team even though you’re not together. Could you all buy the same ingredients and make lunch over Zoom? You could send people something old-school in the post that relates to your meeting or brainstorm. Or take a leaf out of Google’s book and send some really great snacks.

Claire Bridges is founder and ‘chief spark’ at creative training consultancy Now Go Create and author of In Your Creative Element

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