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.”


Intentional Culture Creation Advice from Google: Define your culture at the outset of your company's life

This is part of a series of post looking at tools that companies have used to intentionally create culture.

Google in 1999 (Photo Credit: BusinessWeek)

Google in 1999 (Photo Credit: BusinessWeek)

In their book How Google Works, Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg, advocate for thinking about culture at the beginning of creating a company. They write, “Many people, when considering a job, are primarily concerned with their role and responsibilities, the company's track record, the industry, and compensation. Further down on that list, probably somewhere between "length of commute" and "quality of coffee in the kitchen," comes culture. Smart creatives, though, place culture at the top of the list. To be effective, they need to care about the place they work. This is why, when starting a new company or initiative, culture is the most important thing to consider.”

Most companies' culture just happens; no one plans it. That can work, but it means leaving a critical component of your success to chance...We preach the value of experimentation and the virtues of failure, but culture is perhaps the one important aspect of a company where failed experiments hurt. Once established, company culture is very difficult to change, because early on in a company's life a self-selection tendency sets in. People who believe in the same things the company does will be drawn to work there, while people who don’t won't. If a company believes in a culture where everyone gets a say and decisions are made by committee, it will attract like-minded employees. But if that company tries to adopt a more autocratic or combative approach, it will have a very hard time getting employees to go along with it.”

“The smart approach is to ponder and define what sort of culture you want at the outset of your company's life. And the best way to do is to ask the smart creatives who form your core team, the ones who know the gospel and believe in it as much as you do. Culture stems from founders, but it is best reflected in the trusted team the founders form to launch their venture. So ask that team: What do we care about? What do we believe? Who do we want to be? How do we want our company to act and make decisions? Then write down their responses. They will, in all likelihood, encompass the founders' values, but embellish them with insights from the team's different perspectives and experiences.”  

Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg write that, “Most companies neglect this. They become successful, and then decide they need to document their culture. The job falls to someone in the human resources or PR department who probably wasn't a member of the founding team but who is expected to draft a mission statement that captures the essence of the place. The result is usually a set of corporate sayings that are full of "delighted" customers, "maximized" shareholder value, and "innovative" employees. The difference, though, between successful companies and unsuccessful ones is whether employees believe the words.” (How Google Works, Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg, page 29-30)