What Makes a Cool Office?
For any company, but especially a start-up, an office is much more than just four walls, a bunch of desks, some laptops, and an instant-coffee machine.
An office is a recruitment tool, a second home, a place to hang out with friends, a place to be inspired, and, particularly for entrepreneurs with huge goals, the place that will serve as the launch pad into building the next billion-dollar company.
So it's no wonder so many founders are obsessed with office design. Jason Freedman, founder of 42Floors, is one of those founders.
"The core job of the CEO is to create the space where people can do incredible work," says Freedman. "And when you think of the CEO's job in that perspective, the office becomes a huge part of the job. And yet, it's also the thing they're least qualified to do, because most of the time they've never done it before."
The motto of 42Floors, which is based in San Francisco, is "discover and create your dream office." The start-up collects real estate data in urban areas, and businesses can search its database of available offices without the use of a broker. It's like Trulia for offices. Naturally, Freedman, who previously founded two companies and is an alumnus of Y Combinator, spends a lot time thinking about office space.
"I think that the key prompt there is: Do you care about your company culture?" he says. "If you do, then the office matters. If you're trying to build a company that's going to last a long time, the office is a key component. It's just as important as the way in which you incentivize your employees. For our employees, when we built our office, the office is their second home. It's an important part of how they see their job."
Raw spaces are in--but they're so much more than exposed beams.
It's undeniable that the "urban rustic" theme—the rough-hewn woods, the antlers on the wall, and the wide-plank floors—has seized the design Zeitgeist. Founders want a space that looks raw or unpolished, and developers are willing to pay for that look in order to attract start-up tenants.
"Now we have the strangest thing in the world happening, where developers are being forced to spend outrageous amounts of money to rip out all this expensive-material wall and ceiling, so it can go back to looking cheap," says Freedman. "The initial part of that was that start-ups took offices that no one else wanted. But they made that space into something cool."
So what is it about the raw aesthetic that's so undeniably charming? What's so enthralling about spending time in a space with exposed red brick walls? What sort of psychology is at play?
"These materials are reminiscent of a time when Americans built physical things," says Marc Kushner, the founder and CEO of Architizer, a social network for architects and interior designers. "It becomes an architectural stand-in for building actual stuff--that's really healthy. It's a rougher design. It's different than design a decade ago, which you sometimes felt was so sleek you were going to slip right off it."
He adds, "All these places are using factory windows with leaded panes, they have a tactility that reminds us of a simpler time. They're picking up on the idea that when people are walking away from their computer screens they want some relief."
In the first dot-com bust, when first-time entrepreneurs were raising tons of capital, the expression of wealth was an important design tactic, says Freedman. It signaled to the best engineers: "Look at us, we've raised the money, and now is your chance to become aligned with the Next Big Thing."
But after the first bubble burst, a general skepticism evolved in the start-up ecosystem. Now, employees want to feel they're actually building something from the ground up.
"People want to feel a part of something bigger than themselves," says Freedman. "And when you're all in it together, when Mark Zuckerberg's desk is just another desk on the floor, and everyone is there, and everyone owns it, then being in a raw space where hierarchy has been ripped out, that makes everyone feel part of something special. People shift from an employee mindset to being a team member."
Open floor plans aren't everything.
If the cartoonish, Dilbert-esque idea of gray cubicles and gray desks and gray filing cabinets sends shivers down your spine, you're not alone. Any "cool" office will eschew the Office Space doldrums of the traditional cubicle layout.
So in the last several years, the move away from cubicle structures and toward more open floor plans, where collaboration is as simple as looking across the desk to see your co-worker sitting five feet away, became incredibly popular. Perhaps almost too popular--some designers believe that an open floor plan isn't the quintessential means for having a "cool" office.
Denise Cherry, the design director at Studio O+A, which has designed offices for Facebook, AOL, Microsoft, Square, and Yelp, believes in the importance of something she calls "tertiary spaces": spaces that aren't conference rooms and that aren't personal desks, either. They're in-between areas that are quiet, where technical people can focus without being locked away in some white-walled room.
"A space that's full of collaborative space but has zero quiet space is just as unsuccessful as a space that's full of offices and has no collaborative space," she says. "It's about finding a balance, and what that balance is for each company. That ratio depends on the type of work that companies do."
Let employees carve out their own space.
By day, Alexa Baggio works in sales at a New York City-based start-up. At night, she's the founder and editor in chief of The Roger, a quarterly magazine devoted to exploring creative workspaces.
"I had this love for creative spaces, and realized there was no medium that was capturing or giving enough attention to the place we all spend the most time," she says. The Roger was launched eight months ago, and in that time, Baggio has scoured the city for creative offices. But the coolest offices, she says, are not necessarily those that have flashy accoutrements or sweeping views, but those that have spent the time to understand what their employees really want.
"As much as it's important to show off the brand in an office, people want to personalize their space," she says. "It's important to create ways for employees to make space their own without it being a detriment to the company if someone left."
At the same time, when you consider the shift to Wi-Fi and laptops, employees don't need to be tethered to one workstation.
"Wireless technology, and the size of the things we carry around, have a big impact on the build environment," says Kushner. "You don't even need a hard drive. You can virtually be anywhere. It's a huge expense to actually wire everything. Once you free up yourself from wires, you have more of a free-for-all. You don't need as many walls. Once you have no file cabinet, that frees you up a little bit. Once you don't have wires, you're actually free."
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.