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Can You Design Employee Engagement into Your Intranet?

In the last post, we talked about Steve Job’s “other company,” Pixar, and how it uses office space to bring employees together. It was Job’s desire to create a building that stood the test of time:

“Tom Carlisle, Pixar’s facilities director adds that, “He didn’t want a standard office-park building—one with corrugated-metal siding or ribbon windows. The building had to look good 100 years from now. That was his main criterion.” 1

Pixar’s world-famous Emeryville headquarters were designed in the 90s. It continues to be a very attractive place to work, and its design principles still hold today. But if your company can’t afford custom-built office space, it’s not as big a deal now as it was twenty years ago.

The world has gone virtual.

We still have physical bodies that we need to feed, clothe, shelter, and sit in front of computer screens. But in many ways, our virtual office space has become more important than our physical one. In part because many of us don’t drive to work every day anymore—but also because it’s easier to adapt our virtual space to our needs and wants.

Below are some of the ideas that influenced Pixar’s building design. You can use the same principles to energize and inspire your people through the intranet. Here’s how:

Stimulate interactions

Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar, said that Pixar’s most important function is the interaction of its employees. The building’s many common areas were designed for groups of employees to come together spontaneously. Can you do this on the intranet? Glad you asked!

In fact, I’ve been asked this question before, and I’ve put some thoughts together in this post: “How to Get Employees to Start Online Discussions

“Arbitrary collisions of people”

Not only did Steve Jobs want to give the existing groups space to be creative, but he also planned for unexpected encounters to occur. He wanted all kinds of people to bump into each other all the time. So, he moved everyone’s mailboxes and the bathrooms to the center of the building. Can you likewise channel all kinds of traffic to your intranet? You can and you should.

First, put vital information into the public areas of the intranet and tell HR to direct everyone there. Want to check your vacation time? Here’s a link. Need to look up a colleague? Make sure everyone’s profile is live and up to date. This way you’ll know your people are always logging in. Next, enable chat, public forums, and other social features. Seeing people’s names in the comments is just like running into them in the bathroom, only better. You’ll strike up a conversation, you’ll come up with an idea, and many other people can chime in and make it work.

Telling stories

Pixar is an animated-film studio; its creative edge is telling stories. But, in some sense, it’s true about all of us. Telling and hearing “stories” gets our wheels spinning. How do you get employees to tell stories on the intranet? Well, you ask questions. If your employees are slow to start, you could seed the forums with some interesting questions and ask management to set the pace.

Candid “notes”

Pixar has something called Braintrust—a process employees use to review and critique each other’s work. The company noticed early on that 360-degree “notes” result in higher quality productions than the traditional top-down style executive feedback.

Braintrust requires team members to be brutally honest with each other. But, coming from peers, the notes don’t have the quality of censorship and tend to stimulate the discussion rather than shut it down. The proof is the fantastic track record of Pixar films.

Would you like to try it at home? All you need is to use the project space on your intranet and ask your team to rip your ideas apart. Once they get going, you won’t need to ask anymore; trashing someone else’s work is a great way to blow off steam. In the end, only the best ideas will survive. A win all around!

Leave room for employees to own their space

Jobs wasn’t the only employee who had a say over what the building looked like inside. Many Pixar employees chose to design and decorate their offices to their heart’s content. Pixar executives cheered them on, seeing it as a shortcut to creativity, loyalty, and goodwill. Can your intranet serve the same purpose?

Indeed, it can. Show employees how to use wiki pages to generate work-related content spontaneously. Carve out some space for personal content too. You know how Facebook always nudges you to like and post? Because the more you do, the more you get hooked and the more friends you bring with you. If you want your employees to get hooked on your intranet fast, let them do some socializing.

Balance privacy with open space

Pixar solved this problem by arranging individual offices into U-shaped clusters opening onto communal team space. In addition, the building has lots of open areas for everyone to mix and mingle. Your intranet can function in the same way, when you set access privileges to individual and group projects. Let people work in privacy where it serves the needs of the project. At the same time, post a lot of interesting content for everyone to view and discuss.

Attention to detail

Jobs’ famous eye for detail did not rest during the design and construction of Pixar headquarters. As a result, the building has many unique and eccentric features and a strong identity that helps bond employees together. With some creativity and thought, and a lot less money, you can incorporate memorable details into your virtual office space.

Your intranet is so much more than a place to store files. It can hold memories and inspirational quotes. It can spread news and wins. It can help employees support and coach each other. Every word and image on your screen is an opportunity to engage and inspire. Don’t miss it!

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If you are looking for inspiration, you might like my book, because it will help you see the possibilities.

[1] “Pixar Headquarters and the Legacy of Steve Jobs,” https://officesnapshots.com/2012/07/16/pixar-headquarters-and-the-legacy-of-steve-jobs/

Tim Eisenhauer
Written by Tim Eisenhauer

Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.

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