Making Culture Tangible: Designing Intentional Office Spaces

This is part of a series of posts about methods for making culture, which is inherently intangible, more tangible.

SoundCloud's Reception area (Photo credit: Werner Huthmacker)

SoundCloud's Reception area (Photo credit: Werner Huthmacker)

Intentional culture creation calls for creating intentional spaces. Office designer Kelly Robinson, the designer behind the SoundCloud, Airbnb, and Couchsurfing offices, says that in intentional offices, “Everything has a place. Every place has a purpose.”

An article in First Round Review describes Kelly’s mindful approach to workplace design. 

“You should know what you want to accomplish with every square foot. “Every bit of your office serves a purpose of some kind,” Robinson says. “But if you don’t mindfully designate those purposes, the whole space becomes fair game for eating, meeting, collaborating and doing focused work. The result is a confusing — and potentially frustrating — vibe.” She encourages leaders to carefully consider what kinds of spaces they need, build them in the right proportion and clearly communicate ground rules to the organization. “Your desk is not a dinner table. It’s unhealthy to be shoveling food in your mouth while looking at your computer screen,” she says. It’s also not a meeting room or an appropriate place for loud phone calls. But you don’t need to hog a six-person meeting room to take a Skype call, either.”

In particular, there's one purpose that startups must plan for: Spontaneity. Your office should include spaces that can accommodate the hallway conversation that turns into a flash of genius, whether that’s a large central space or smaller drop-in nooks — ideally both. “Most conversations don’t need to be held behind closed doors. They just need a place where participants don't have to worry about being interrupted, kicked out or scolded for being too loud,” Robinson says. And don’t neglect the space between spaces — it has a purpose, too. “It's important to think about how people physically move around your office. The experience of traveling through the space needs to not be frustrating and not be ugly,” Robinson says. Barriers like excessive secure doors and sterile, claustrophobic corridors both literally and figuratively stop the flow of creativity.

At SoundCloud, Kelly created not just a reception space but a reception experience that telegraphs what the company is all about. “We modeled the reception bar after Apple’s Genius Bar,” she says. “There are always two people there, and it serves not only as a welcome for guests but also as an information hub for employees. Immediately there’s mingling. Guests don't feel like they're stuck in the lobby; they feel like they're part of SoundCloud for that moment. Collaboration, boundary crossing, creative mixing — SoundCloud’s office welcomes people right into its raison d’être, and sets a pace and tone for the time they spend there.”