I'm one of those people who, despite draconian efforts otherwise, is extremely affected by my physical environment...particularly when it comes to my workspace. When I joined an early stage technology company a few years ago, I was scared to death that being in a shared office space would not only mean having to endure rounds of annoying ping pong tournaments, but I would likewise be unable to concentrate and would be relegated to less than stellar design. I know. I'm a snob.

To get to the bottom of what makes for great design (so you can look for these things when you're getting ready to A) find an official home base for your startup or B) have the flexibility for early stage growth), I've tapped some of my favorite U.S. based shared office space companies who are quite literally breaking down the walls for this bourgeoning market.

For starters, when most people think of "office design", they tend to consider things like wall decor and furniture. However, for companies that run shared office space, design takes on a whole new -- and larger -- perspective. The nation's leading shared office space providers agree; it's not as simple as a cubicle floor plan. Instead, each of their shared offices comes with their own identity, one meticulously crafted during the design and planning stages long before any small businesses, startups, or freelancers even moved in.

"Designing the Assemble spaces starts with finding the right buildings," said Phil Domenico, Co-founder of Assemble Shared Office in Chicago. Domenico took his decades of Chicago-area real-estate experience to find the right buildings to fit his vision. Their first building wound up in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood and the final building was selected on the criteria of letting in natural light -- one of the key driver's in all of Assemble's locations. Options were whittled down until an appropriate building was found with large windows on at least three of the four sides and distances of at least several feet to adjacent buildings.

Dyanne Cano of Hub LA agreed with the need for an abundance of natural light. "We chose to amplify the natural light in the space through our glass details and large windows to create a warm and inviting environment," said Cano. Another design area that both Assemble and Hub LA agreed on was large windows and glass offices -- both selected to create an environment of collaboration. "Our space is purposefully designed for Hub LA members to engage one-on-one as well as communally," said Cano.

From a technical perspective, this design need drives architectural requirements. Assemble's search looked for interiors with ceilings at least twelve feet high, along with floor plates with somewhat limited size and depth. This enhanced the ability of natural light to come in, which then complemented office structures with glass walls.

"Assemble's glass walled office design aesthetic achieves three important goals," said Domenico. "First, promote natural light throughout the space. Second, deliver a sense of energy and community watching others work. Third, ensure privacy when you need it."

Another common design driver for shared offices is an emphasis on community. This often manifests in the form of a centralized communal area -- usually with food and beverages. Hub LA located the community kitchen in the middle of the space to serve as an anchor, complete with daily gourmet coffee. Assemble also located the cafe areas with group seating in the heart of both its Chicagoland spaces, with hallways spidering out to lead to offices.

NextSpace Venice Beach took that idea even further. "Our main working area, which we refer to as Caf space, covers nearly 70 percent of the entire building," said Carl Martin, who holds court as Community Curator. "It is circular shaped, which organically fosters communication amongst our co-working members."

Of course, no two shared office spaces are exactly alike. While some architectural design drivers overlap, every shared office retains its own identity. Sonja Rasula, Founder and CEO of Unique Space, took that idea to heart immediately. "I wanted to create a very specific environment for our co-workers and office tenants: A space that was welcoming, warm, very inspirational visually. Someplace that felt like home, not a stuff or sterile workplace," said Rasula. "When your brand has "unique" in the name, you've got to live up to that!"

Rasula put her background as an interior designer on HGTV to work and designed a space that broke out of the structured and traditional mold that commonly catered to tech workers. Instead, she emphasized a colorful and eclectic design aesthetic that mixed vintage and modern, bold graphics and photography. "My mission was to create points of interest and inspiration every direction a person could look," said Rasula. "An inspirational work environment is crucial for creatives to produce great work!"

Ultimately, it does come down to the community to maximize a shared office's possibilities. Trumaker, a custom men's clothing company, used their space at Assemble to build a mini-showroom. This creative use of location and target demographic ultimately represents what companies like Assemble, Unique Space, Hub LA, and NextSpace Venice Beach are trying to do: design a work environment that inspires a community to creative results. Or as Domenico puts it, "Assemble's #1 design motto is community."

Needless to say, I'm still with my company, haven't seen one ping pong tournament, and truth be told: shared office space done well is probably one of the best environments one could have for getting things done, generating ideas, and being "inspired" on the regular. Who knew design could do all that?

Published on: Jun 9, 2015