How would you design the ideal workspace for a fast-growing company? 

BlackLine, a seven-time Inc. 5000 honoree whose software automates financial-closing processes, is currently facing and embracing this challenge. Specifically, the $58-million company is intent on preserving its warm, fun, friendly culture as the employee population grows. It's one thing to share in-jokes and know every face in the building when you have only 25 employees. It's quite another when--like BlackLine--you have a staff of 330 employees (300 working from the Los Angeles headquarters) that's rising by the week. 

Of course, a spike in the employee population often means you have to move to a larger office--or spring for more square footage in your current digs. For Los Angeles-based BlackLine, the latter was the better option. The top three floors of its 12-story building were available for a buildout. The innovative ways the company used that additional real estate may shed light on what you too could do with an extra office or, if you're lucky enough, an entire floor. 

Space for Infield Chatter

For founder and CEO Therese Tucker, a buildout of the top three floors will allow BlackLine to comfortably expand beyond the 300 employees already in the building. The three floors connect via an internal staircase. Employees will move throughout, depending on their by-the-moment needs. For example, an atrium on the 11th floor will be a social space near the food and coffee, designed to facilitate informal communication. A space devoted to such infield chatter--the casual, unplanned talks that often lead to great ideas--will help BlackLine preserve its collegial culture as the headcount grows. 

The buildout is underway. It's scheduled to be completed this month. For BlackLine, an ancillary benefit of the process has been a dosage of honest employee feedback. To design the new space, the company tapped, CBRE, an $8 billion global commercial real estate services company, which observed, surveyed, and conducted focus groups with BlackLine's employees.

Moreover, as the buildout began, BlackLine itself was able to observe how employees old and new responded to the early changes. One of the biggest lessons of the process was more like a reminder: While social and collaborative spaces are important for preserving a culture in the face of rapid growth, it's just as important to recognize the need for quarters where employees can hole up and work quietly--and alone. 

Space for Introverts and Quiet Workers 

For instance, one of CBRE's recommendations for maintaining the fluidity of social interactions was to consider "free address" desks for some employees or positions. A "free address" desk is just that: employees are not assigned their own personal work spaces, but can roam and work where they like from day to day. 

For many companies, the free-address concept could work marvelously. "But our people were like, absolutely not," says Tucker. "The feeling was, you cannot just give my desk to anyone." 

As is the case at many companies, opinions on the ideal work space can differ by position and personality--and also by the moods and deadlines of a given day. The more CBRE observed and surveyed BlackLine employees, the more this became apparent. "In the marketing department, there were a lot of exhibits and stuff in their area," says CBRE's Beth Moore. "They are very collaborative, yelling across each other's stations and sharing ideas."

By contrast, the developers in some instances "preferred rooms with quiet and the lights off," says Moore. "So it was important for the developers to have quiet spaces, off the main highway in the floor plan."

Space Be Nimble, Space Be Quick

Likewise, it was important to provide the employees with flexible spaces, where either solo work or team work could take place--depending on where you sit and who else is around. BlackLine's open loft space on the 11th floor (see photo, above) is one such flexible space. It's designed to give workers both ample room for informal meetings and quiet corners for privacy. 

Getting to the emotional heart of what matters most at work--including an employee's deep needs for either introversion or social fun--is a core principle of workplace design. Office space specialists like CBRE are extremely aware of this. So are office furniture designers. At Allsteel, a designer and maker of office furniture based in Muscatine, Iowa, there's a general belief that every office should contain six types of workspaces:

1. The Open "I"--a place where you work alone, but people can see you working.

2. The Open "We"--a place where one team can work, and people can see them working.

3. The Open "Shared"--a place where many teams can potentially work together, and people can see them working.

4. The Closed "I"--a place where you work alone, in private.

5. The Closed "We"--a place where one team can work privately.

6. The Closed "Shared"--a place where many teams can potentially work together, yet still have privacy from other people in the office.

From Allsteel's perspective, an ideal office is a place where you can work in private or in public, by yourself or in a group.

BlackLine's work with CBRE reflects this flexibility and respect for employees' emotional needs. "Different groups need different things," summarizes Tucker.

She's confident BlackLine will have a space where employees can do their jobs--and have fun at the office--and extract whatever they may need from the workplace, on any given day. Soon the 10th, 11th, and 12th floors will be the home to 300 BlackLine employees, working in a space that was redesigned specifically for their retention, engagement, and productivity. Ask Tucker what the next step is, and she doesn't hesitate: "We already have the 9th floor in sight."

Published on: Jun 1, 2015