“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
Opening a new office in Detroit has me thinking about space a lot lately. Our first space in the East Building was 2000 square feet with a conference room in one corner and a tiny kitchen in the middle. That seemed to work pretty well, so when we bought a building in 2003 we tore out a bunch of interior walls, left the corner conference room, and renovated the kitchen area. Now, nine years later, the space is a lot nicer than when we first moved in (real HVAC, sound absorbing ceiling clouds, built-in bookshelves and marker boards, nicer lighting, cubbies for backpacks, etc) but the decor is still “shabby chic”, and the fundamental layout is the same.
The main reasons our space works so well for us is because it promotes communication and collaboration, it’s flexible, and it supports our team-centric approach to company organization and work. Shopping for office space in Detroit made me more fully appreciate some other aspects that are important about our workspace and our company. Access to natural light and windows that can be opened are both unusual (for software development in West Michigan, anyway) and, I believe, subtly important. We don’t open the windows that often, but when we do, it sure feels great. And we’ll sometimes complain about the glare, but working without electric light on a sunny day feels very personal and cosy. Having only two floors, using stairs, being able to get out of the building in 30 seconds or less, seeing the traffic drive by, knowing what’s going on on the sidewalk, walking to lunch, having friends notice the logo in the window — all these things are what I summarize as attributes of “human scaled” buildings.
Going to Detroit
We looked at some beautiful, class A office space in Detroit. We could easily have rented an office with a view of the river, had a floor all to ourselves, walked past marble and carpet every day, and shared the use of very nice conference rooms and even an auditorium. The space was open and flexible. We would have had a small kitchen. But the building filled its block to the gills, was surrounded by similar high-rise architecture, required two banks of elevators to get into and out of, and would have needed way-finding signs for visitors to reach us. It just didn’t feel like Atomic.
I only fully realized after we found the right space for our office in Detroit (three stories, brick, wood floors, kinda funky, interesting neighborhood) just how wrong that class A space was, and how important those secondary factors are. Our company culture has evolved in a certain kind of space. I see now, as Churchill said, that our space has shaped us. Since our goal is to extend the brand, values and culture from Grand Rapids to Detroit, we need the same sort of space for the new office to have any hope at meeting this goal.
Innovation in a large company
It seems that Steelcase, one of Atomic’s clients, has been doing a lot of thinking, researching, and writing on this subject. They have also been putting this learning into action, building some new spaces to promote collaboration across departments, providing flexibility to people, and recouping space formerly dedicated to a single use. I hadn’t visited Steelcase before last year, but I think I can accurately guess that their facilities have changed dramatically. It’s impressive to me that such a large company with such a rich heritage (they turned 100 years old this year) seems to have significantly rocked the boat on the office space status quo.
I was particularly struck by a recent visit to Steelcase’s WorkCafé (more pictures here and here.) Far from the cubicles or “open offices” that most people associate with large western Michigan office furniture manufacturers, this place draws you down (I particularly love the entry way staircase) and makes you want to settle in to meet and get work done. I think I immediately felt at home because it reminds me of home. Like Atomic’s workspace, there is a variety of furniture, free standing tables, flexibility, ubiquitous technology, group space, private space, and a cafe. (The relatively few people on earth who have been to both places are probably laughing right now, as comparing the WorkCafé to Atomic Object is like comparing a 2012 Aston Martin DBS to a 15 year old Hyundai Accent. But hey, they both serve creative, collaborative, flexible work processes, right?)
As I understand it, the WorkCafé was created in space formerly occupied by a more traditional cafeteria. While it still covers that base (with really nice food, too), it goes well beyond the rectilinear grid of tables to encompass lounge seating, small group areas, private-yet-transparent workplaces, and plenty of Steelcase’s very cool Mediascape technology. What I recognize in the WorkCafé, and respond so positively to, is the human scale of the space. Though it’s partially below grade, and part of the very large Global Headquarters building, it feels like a space I want to be in.
Innovation service firms are driven by their people. Anything you do to get in the way of those people working happily and collaboratively can’t be a good thing. It’s fantastic to learn of a company the size of Steelcase, particularly one known more for producing cubicles and files, pushing so creatively and effectively toward an environment that respects the human scale and interaction of work and workspaces. I recommend their online magazine, 360°. I think we have a lot to learn from them.