Work Environment Insights Gained Thanks to a Pixar Campus Tour

a peek behind pixar
By Jennifer Olsen

Toy Story.
Cars.
Inside Out.
The Incredibles.
Monsters, Inc.
Finding Nemo.

For good reason, the list of well-known Pixar movies is long. If your family is like mine, movies from Pixar are at the top of our favorites list. Thanks to an auction item win, my family and I recently had the opportunity to visit the place where the magic happens: the Pixar campus in Emeryville, California.

Celebrate individuality and creativity.
For someone who has seen (and worked in) plenty of average office buildings, the Pixar office spaces we toured were remarkably different. Rather than having standard offices, the employees we encountered were allowed to create the environment that worked for them, down to the walls, flooring and furnishings. That meant people were working in everything from the storage sheds you’d see at Home Depot, to LEGO castles, to comfy couches that surrounded faux fireplaces (complete with a mantel and a stone hearth). Rather than pushing everyone into cookie cutter cubes, Pixar seems to let employees develop a supportive culture built on creativity, camaraderie and shared celebrations of uniqueness that adds to the strength of the collective.

In all my years working in HR, I’ve never witnessed anything like what I saw at Pixar. What struck me as I walked around the building was that even if I didn’t see the employee working in their castle, cabin, or camp setting, I felt a deep sense of who that person was and what they might be offering to Pixar, just by looking at the space they’d created. That type of individual expression is a powerful tool to celebrate—and use—creativity for the greater good.

Make room for the extraordinary.
As an HR professional, I’m the first to admit that those of us in this field of work can get caught up with egalitarianism and consistency; with providing the same experience for all employees and ensuring standards are upheld. Don’t get me wrong, those are all important and we pay attention to those things for a reason. But when we only manage to the exception, we run the risk of squelching what could be amazing.

What I witnessed at Pixar served as a reminder: we can’t let the process and the rules drive us to manage to the exceptions. If someone wants to decorate their cube, is there any harm in that? If someone has more energy between 10 am and 7 pm, can we accommodate their desired working hours? Rather than fearing exceptions, we should be looking for ways to make room for the extraordinary.

Honor what came before you.
The Pixar campus stands on land that formerly housed a cannery. Some organizations might have chosen to tear down those buildings and put new structures in their place without so much as a glance at the past. Much of the Pixar Campus is indeed new. But there are spaces that honor the past, and call forth the essence of what was there before Pixar.
The intentional honoring of what was, I believe, allows us to go deeper than we could if we simply ignored it. I felt inspired by the purposeful ways in which Pixar visually demonstrate that the past is part of their future.

Of course, I’m not an employee working day in and day out at Pixar. These are just my impressions and observations after spending one day on their remarkable campus. I acknowledge that my experience may be different from an insider’s report. What I do know is that through personal expression and design choices that encourage connection, the Pixar Campus was unlike any other office I’ve experienced. Given the incredible movies they’re making, I imagine they’re doing something right when it comes to the work environment they’ve created.

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"My professional passion stems from a fascination with how the individual needs of employees, managers, and the business converge to produce an outcome. I’m driven by a desire to help leaders and employees find the balance between competing needs so they can work together to address the challenges they face."