The two key elements in WeWork’s better office environment

Edited excerpt from Meet the man who re-designed work: WeWork’s Miguel McKelvey by Will Reynolds:

What are the secrets of WeWork’s design? How does the physical space itself contribute to productivity, inspiration and positivity?

WeWork co-founder Miguel McKelvey, a trained architect and interior designer, highlights two key aspects: glass and natural light. “We like to ensure that there’s lots of natural light. We intentionally seek out properties that are on a corner or that have a lot of light, and then we make interior walls out of glass, or if that’s not possible, we’ll plan out where to place solid walls so we don’t block people’s access to daylight. Another benefit of glass walls: it adds an element of transparency and accountability. When you’re surrounded by other people who are working hard, you’re more likely to work hard, too.”

Notes:
(1) At Seeking Alpha we learned that there are three key factors in successful office design. First, you want to give people a sense of privacy, cosiness cosiness and quiet, so they can concentrate on their work. Second, you want to maximize the amount of natural light. And third, you want to provide opportunities for unscripted interaction.
(2) The problem is that the need for quiet and cosiness conflicts with the need for natural light and unscripted interaction. At Seeking Alpha we built interior glass walls, used large plants to provide cosiness without blocking out light and interaction, and created inviting common areas.
(3) See (i) How to create a healthy office , (ii) Office design: two tips to get seating right, (iii) The problem with open offices, and (iv) Startup office design: Time to reconsider cubicles?

The strongest reason why you should locate your office to minimize business travel

Edited excerpt from The sad, sick life of the business traveller by A.W. of The Economist:

Researchers at the University of Surrey, in Britain, and Linnaeus University, in Sweden, have published a new study highlighting what they call “a darker side of hypermobility”. The “hypermobile”—largely but not exclusively business travellers— suffer from three types of consequence:

1. Physiological effects: Jet lag, whose direr, if rarer, potential effects, include speeding ageing or increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke; danger of deep-vein thrombosis, exposure to germs and radiation; less exercise and less healthy eating than people who stay in place.

2. Psychological and emotional effects: “travel disorientation” from changing places and time zones; mounting stress, given that “time spent travelling will rarely be offset through a reduced workload; isolation and lonliness due to the absence from family and friends.

3. Social effects: Marriages suffer from the time apart, as does children’s behaviour; relationships tend to become more unequal, as the partner who stays at home is forced to take on more domestic duties; friendships fray, as business travellers often “sacrifice local collective activities and instead prioritise their immediate families when returning from trips”.

Notes:
(1) Thank you William Gadea, founder of IdeaRocket, for the tip.
(2) These costs suggest that companies should locate their offices to minimize the need for employees to travel frequently.
(3) Cf. The pros and cons of locating your startup outside Silicon Valley.
(4) When business travel is necessary, what are the ways to minimize its negative consequences?

The pros and cons of locating your startup outside Silicon Valley

Edited excerpt from Top 5 Benefits of Growing a SaaS Startup Outside of Silicon Valley by Jeremy Boudinet:

The advantages:

1. Low burn rate
2. Minimal employee turnover
3. Only gig in town
4. No hype/distractions
5. Chip on the shoulder – you work extra hard

The disadvantages:

1. Geography-based VC skepticism
2. Significantly fewer networking opportunities
3. Customer scarcity
4. Prospect skepticism

Notes:
(1) The most fundamental disadvantage is customer scarcity, but that applies to being outside any major commercial center, not specifically Silicon Valley. Being close to customers allows you to learn about your customers, ask them questions, and observe them interacting with your product. So this goes to the heart of achieving product-market fit.
(2) I faced considerable skepticism from one VC that Seeking Alpha wasn’t located in New York, the key target market for investors. His concern was less about customer interaction for product-market fit, and more about marketing and sales opportunities. However, being located outside New York forced us to build marketing and sales relationships via the web without in person meetings, which is more scalable.

Should you give people “ownership” of their work environment?

Edited excerpt from Being Mortal by Atul Gawande:

In the early 1970s, the psychologists Judith Rodin and Ellen Langer performed an experiment in which they got a Connecticut nursing home to give each of its residents a plant. Half of them were assigned the job of watering their plant and attended a lecture on the benefits of taking on responsibilities in their lives. The other half had their plant watered for them and attended a lecture on how the staff was responsible for their well-being. After a year and a half, the group encouraged to take more responsibility — even for such a small thing as a plant — proved more active and alert and appeared to live longer.

Notes:
(1) There are two possible explanations for the results of the study: (i) watering the plants gave the nursing home residents a small degree of purpose, which they were lacking, or (ii) requiring the residents to water their plants gave them a sense of ownership and control over their environment.
(2) Note that nursing homes and company offices share a common characteristic — their inhabitants spend a large amount of time there, but are not in control of their environment.
(3) Perhaps the implication of this study for offices is therefore that companies should offer to give employees responsibility for their work environment if they want it. Why not let employees choose plants (with agreed criteria) and take responsibility for their upkeep, if they want to?
(4) Cf. How to create an office your employees love.

How your office influences your employees’ decisions

Edited excerpt from Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Laszlo Bock:

For years we’d been testing ways to improve the quantity and quality of Googlers’ lives. We decided to test three types of intervention: providing information so that people could make better food choices, limiting options to healthy choices, and nudging. Of the three, nudges were the most effective. Nudging involves subtly changing the structure of the environment without limiting choice.

We measured the consumption of microkitchen snacks for two weeks to generate a baseline, and then put all the candy in opaque containers. Googlers, being normal people, prefer candy to fruit, but what would happen when we made the candy just a little less visible and harder to get to? We were floored by the result. The proportion of total calories consumed from candy decreased by 30 percent and the proportion of fat consumed dropped by 40 percent.

We turned to our cafés to see if a similar small nudge could change behavior. We supplemented our standard twelve-inch plates with smaller nine-inch plates. We put up posters and placed informational cards on the café tables, referencing the research that people who ate off smaller plates on average consumed fewer calories but felt equally satiated. 32 percent of Googlers tried the small plates. Total consumption dropped by 5 percent, but waste — the amount of food thrown away uneaten — fell by 18 percent.

We’re influenced by countless small signals that nudge us in one direction or another, often without any deep intent behind the nudges. Organizations make decisions about how to structure their workspaces, teams, and processes. Every one of these decisions nudges us to be open or closed, healthy or ill, happy or sad. Now look around you right now and discover how your environment is nudging you and those around you already.

Startup office design: Time to reconsider cubicles?

Edited excerpt from Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain:

Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated and insecure. Open-plan workers are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and elevated stress levels and to get the flu; they argue more with their colleagues; they worry about coworkers eavesdropping on their phone calls and spying on their computer screens. They have fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues. They’re often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates; releases cortisol the body’s fight-or-flight “stress hormone; and makes people socially distant, quicker to anger, aggressive, and slow to help others.

Indeed, excessive stimulation seems to impede learning: a recent study found that people learn better after a quiet stroll through the woods than after a noisy walk down a city street. Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors, found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity.

Backbone Entertainment, a video game design company, initially used an open office plan but found that their game developers, many of whom were introverts, were unhappy. “It was one big warehouse space, with just tables, no walls, and everyone could see each other. We switched over to cubicles and were worried about it — you’d think in a creative environment that people would hate that. But it turns out they prefer having nooks and crannies they can hide away in and just be away from everybody.”

Notes:
(1) Cf. The problem with open offices.
(2) The problem with cubicles is lack of natural light and a view of the outdoors. See Office design: two tips to get seating right.
(3) How can you get privacy (“nooks and crannies they can hide away in”) without sacrificing natural light and views of nature? Ideas, anyone?

Office design: two tips to get seating right

Edited excerpt from The Caveman’s Guide to Building a Better Office by Ron Friedman:

1. Our desire for safe locations explains why sitting with our backs exposed can leave us feeling tense. We don’t enjoy having others sneak up on us and seek to minimize potential threat. As environmental psychologist Sally Augustin points out, this is one reason that restaurant booths fill up more quickly than free-standing tables.

2. Having a view of the outdoors has also been shown to promote performance in the workplace. When views and plants aren’t available, even reminders of nature appear to help. Research suggests that access to aquariums and fireplaces put us at ease and open us up to connecting with others. Pictures of landscapes make us less anxious. Brief exposure to blue and green, colors ever present in fertile environments rich in vegetation, water, and nourishment, make us feel safe and improve our creative output.

Notes:
(1) There’s often a trade-off between “feeling safe” and light. The walls or cubicles which provide privacy and coziness usually block out light.
(2) Light, open environments can also lead to more interruptions and lower productivity. Cf. The problem with open offices.

Don’t allow remote work at the “figure it out” stage

From 22 mistakes I made as a first time founder by Ben Erez:

Mistake # 12: Believing a long-distance partnership could work

We started the company in Miami but after realizing we needed to be closer to cheap technical talent, I relocated to Gainesville, recruited a couple developers and the three of us started working out of an incubator. My co-founders stayed in South Florida and it was a matter of a couple months before the team was one co-founder short and another few months before it was short another.

When you’re trying to get a startup off the ground, everything should be about product and design. Throughout the entire development cycle it’s crucial to have the entire team on the same exact page. You should be able to pull any member of the team aside and ask “why are you building this feature and how does it fit into the long term plan?” and they should be able to answer.

When your co-founders are remote for the product team, they’re not there for the daily interactions and grow distant from the action. This results in an unintended alienation from the core team. In the future I won’t agree to remote work at the idea/prototype stage.

Notes:
(1) Ben’s entire blog post is remarkable. Many people write about success. Few are courageous and honest enough to write about the lessons learned from failure.
(2) My experience in Seeking Alpha is that when we’re trying to figure out something (what Ben calls “the idea/prototype stage”) , the key participants need to be together in a room with a white board. Actually, 3 white boards 🙂
(3) Cf. Peter Thiel’s advice to minimize internal co-ordination costs.

How to create a healthy office

Edited excerpts from How Healthy Is Your Office? by Aaron White:

1. Embrace the power of plants, which help reduce stress.

2. Seek natural light. If you don’t have windows, consider a skylight or holding regular brainstorms on a walk outside.

3. Get stand-up desks, to increase energy, prevent slouching, and alleviate back problems. We whip up adjustable desks for just under $70 with easy-to-assemble IKEA parts.

4. Offer healthy snacks. We’ve seen a surprising amount of employees make the decaf switch, and most report sleeping far better afterward.

5. Embrace the nap. Rested employees are far more productive and make better decisions. We have a couch for napping. 

6. Promote frequent breaks. Stepping away from a difficult problem or project can bring much needed clarity.

7. Find and encourage bike storage, for those who commute by bike.

8. Foster healthy competition and activities. We have a ping-pong table to encourage the team to get up from their desks and clear their minds.

9. Allow pets in the office. Dogs in the workplace have been shown to significantly reduce stress.

 

Minimize internal co-ordination costs

From Blake Masters’ notes on Peter Thiel’s 2012 course on startups at Stanford:

Companies exist because they optimally address internal and external coordination costs. In general, as an entity grows, so do its internal coordination costs. But its external coordination costs fall…

Size and internal vs. external coordination costs matter a lot. North of 100 people in a company, employees don’t all know each other. Politics become important. Incentives change. Signaling that work is being done may become more important than actually doing work.

These costs are almost always underestimated. Yet they are so prevalent that professional investors should and do seriously reconsider before investing in companies that have more than one office.

Severe coordination problems may stem from something as seemingly trivial or innocuous as a company having a multi-floor office. Hiring consultants and trying to outsource key development projects are, for similar reasons, serious red flags.

Get a nice office

Excerpts from When Does Establishing a Good Startup Culture Outweigh Being Cheap? by Mark Suster:

What is charming in your lean first year because you’re feeling like a true startup begins to become annoying when you’re tired of a loud work environment, a single bathroom stall for 40 people or uncomfortable chairs, bad lighting or old computers. Even if you’re winning business, in the press, raising capital and generally doing great things – over time a shitty office environment begins to wear on you.

And I see many companies blow this. My recommendation any time I provide a round of A or B capital is to spend properly on decent offices. Of course there’s always a balance because you don’t want extravagance. But a great office environment will yield so many intangibles that you can’t measure.

A great office helps with recruiting. It helps with productivity and output. It helps with employee retention. A great office helps with the intangibles of “well being” that are psychologically hidden in the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. A good office / work environment is the foundation of establishing a strong company culture and team spirit.

How to create an office your employees love

Max Chopovsky has great advice for how to create an office your employees will love. Edited excerpts:

1. Involve your team in the research. Your team will love that you’re asking for their input. Find out how they like to work. Also figure out when they like to work.

2. Have them assist in finding furniture. [Consider] giving each team member $100 and taking them all to IKEA. The money won’t buy much, but the message of trust and empowerment is priceless.

3. Make a day (or week) out of putting your office together. Let each team member spend his or her first day putting together their furniture and setting up their laptop. 

4. Decorate the space together. Let them take a day to get to know each other while working on a project together.

5. Ask questions. Put up a chalkboard or a dry erase board and write a different question on it every day.

6. Allow each team member to customize their own space. When we ask our interviewees about their favorite part of the office, many say it’s their desk.

7. Provide areas for serendipitous collaborations. Create areas where people can come together.

The problem with open offices

From The Open-Office Trap by Maria Konnikova:

In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. When David Craig surveyed some thirty-eight thousand workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared.

Psychologically, the repercussions of open offices are relatively straightforward. Physical barriers have been closely linked to psychological privacy, and a sense of privacy boosts job performance. Open offices also remove an element of control, which can lead to feelings of helplessness.

Notes:
(1) Like many companies, we increased the openness of Seeking Alpha’s office over time, because removing closed rooms made it lighter, less hierarchical, and less silo-ed.
(2) But the risk that we’ve reduced work effectiveness and happiness worries me. See Startup office design: Time to reconsider cubicles?
(3) Can you get the best of both worlds? See The two key elements in WeWork’s better office environment.