Flatter, faster, fluid: Silicon Valley pilots team-to-team collaboration

New forms of dynamic teamwork will hold the key to future productivity, says San Francisco-based workplace designer Primo Orpilla in an exclusive interview with the Smart Coffee Break, presented by Nestlé Coffee Partners

Workplace productivity in the post-pandemic era will increasingly depend on companies letting go of the past and allowing more fluid forms of team-to-team collaboration to flourish.

That’s the view of leading workplace designer Primo Orpilla, co-founder and principal of San Francisco design firm Studio O+A, who has designed a series of high-profile projects for technology firms in Silicon Valley including Uber, Facebook, AOL, Microsoft and Slack.

Speaking to WORKTECH Academy director Jeremy Myerson as part of the Smart Coffee Break podcast series on productivity at work, presented by Nestlé Coffee Partners, Orpilla explains that what is happening right now inside Silicon Valley’s largest tech organisations will hold a clue to the future workplace.

‘Innovation is king,’ he says, ‘and we want it to happen everywhere and as many times as we can. So what’s changed, I would say, is the way that information and engineering is processed is less linear and more organic.’

Super-agile environment

How different teams interact and collaborate with each other across time and space will be critical to building company productivity, says Orpilla. He admits that companies have big concerns over how the hybrid workplace will unfold, but describes ‘the next chapter of workplace’ as being ‘super agile’.

‘As Silicon Valley switched from military R&D to software, its command-and-control structures also gave way …’

Given Silicon Valley’s history as a centre for military R&D, with its focus on command-and-control hierarchies, it is perhaps ironic that its innovators today should be developing flatter, more complex and more dynamic team structures.

Orpilla acknowledges the irony: ‘I started in the Valley when it was building satellites, missiles, tanks and every piece of war machinery, and then that all faded away for personal computers and hand-held phone devices and social media, and everything that helps you do your work today.’

As Silicon Valley switched production to software and computers, its command-and-control structures also gave way to new team structures that allowed ideas to percolate more freely. Orpilla attributes the rise of start-up culture to the emergence of ‘a more fluid workplace where a lot less was transactional and a more collaborative environment started to emerge…Back in the day, the workplace had one or two conference rooms. Now we have many conference rooms, now we have many areas to meet.’

Unjamming the brain

Orpilla identifies with those in-between or ‘in-the-seam’ areas ‘that are not necessarily on the everyday route but you may be going down them because your ritual is to read the newspaper or to get a cup of coffee or sit on the lawn, or whatever it is. Those serendipitous moments can be somewhat engineered and we can manipulate those paths’.

In the Smart Coffee Break podcast, he describes an interior design project for a large software company over 14 floors in which ‘we put all the kitchens and coffee areas in different parts of the building on each floor, so they were not stacked, so it wasn’t like this efficient route… but it sure was successful in terms of moving people through the building.’ People enjoyed figuring out the puzzle  of the space and coffee points became a destination.

‘It wasn’t like this efficient route but it was successful in terms of moving people through the building…’

Orpilla recognises that going off to get a refreshment in the workplace can ‘unjam the brain’ and unleash creativity: ‘So we’re thinking of little areas that might introduce circadian-rhythm light or sounds or moments of distraction, but in a positive way like when you go to an art installation or see something unique.’

Demand on workplace

The impact of the global pandemic and the increase in virtual working hasn’t diminished the importance of the office for team interaction, says Orpilla, but it has ‘refocused it on what is going to be its highest purpose. The moments that we have in the office will be more deliberate…so it’s really going to put the demand on the workplace. Does it supply better refreshments? Does it supply a more soundproof conference room? Or more collaborative environments with whiteboard easels, or AI or some sort of virtual holodeck-type scenario?’

You can listen to the full interview with workplace designer Primo Orpilla of Studio O+A here.

It is the fourth programme in the six-part Smart Coffee Break podcast series on productivity at work. It follows interviews with Despina Katsikakis of Cushman & Wakefield on the evolution of office productivity, with Adelaide-based neuroscientist Dr Fiona Kerr on flow and focus, and with Simon French, Workplace and Design Director at GSK, on optimising team performance.

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