San Francisco companies’ belief in collaborative space echoes in Birmingham.
Daxko House Divided Room, Photo by Liesa Cole
By Anita Turner
In an effort to understand what the future of office space in Birmingham might look like, I recently took a whirlwind trip to San Francisco, the epicenter of the technology culture. My trip included visits to Yelp, GitHub, Ripple, Wired, Pandora, Airbnb, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. While each space had a very different look, some distinct themes emerged.
The first thing I noticed was an absolute lack of private offices. Other than Wired, which had only six, I didn’t see a single office or even a private cubicle. Everyone sits at bench seating, some configured in honeycombs and some in straight lines. The message is clear: Collaboration is king and hierarchies are dead.
Locally, BBVA Compass, Daxko, and SCA are embracing this approach. BBVA Compass has installed extensive bench seating in all of its Birmingham buildings. Private offices are being eliminated as spaces get refurbished, a move that is very reflective of the European influence of BBVA’s Spanish parent company.
When SCA relocated to the Brookwood office building last year, it worked with Williams Blackstock Architects to eliminate all exterior offices, instead moving private offices to the interior of the space so that all of the new low-rise cubicles could enjoy natural light. Further, most of the interior offices are glass-walled and unassigned so that they may be used as quiet spaces when tasks necessitate it.
Daxko’s Homewood offices are completely open as well. Even the C-Suite sits at bench-style seating. This is reflective of the culture of communication and approachability of which Daxko is a proponent.
For all of these companies, saving space (and reducing rent overhead) was not the primary goal (although most occupy to a density of six employees per 1,000 square feet). Rather, they wanted to encourage teamwork, and have the flexibility to grow and reorganize as teams and projects change.
While San Francisco tech companies all embrace the open plan, they acknowledge the need for quiet work areas or confidential meeting spaces. GitHub began as a company with employees writing code in bars, coffee shops, and home offices. In an effort to be true to that culture, they designed their space to provide a variety of environments to accommodate different personal work styles. Their space features several bars, a library, a “speakeasy” accessed through a hidden door in the library, coder caves and some simpler conference rooms.
Airbnb translated their most popular listings around the globe into meeting rooms and communal spaces. There are tents, Japanese tea rooms, Parisian kitchens, San Francisco living rooms, and even an Airstream trailer.
The entrance to Wired’s space features a large open area with huge reconfigurable sectionals as well as conference rooms with glass walls that can collapse when the magazine hosts large events. Their library is a sacred “quiet zone” where all know that noise is not welcome. The beanbag room, on the other hand, features a video game console and is rarely quiet.
Pinterest has large open spaces with comfy sectionals as well as conference rooms with curtains. They even have a Quiet Room with bunk beds for napping!
Many of the San Francisco companies with completely open plans have installed “phone booths” for their employees to have quiet and/or private conversations. Locally, the Lloyd Gray Whitehead & Monroe law firm recently relocated to 880 Montclair Road. In doing so, they embraced an open bullpen area for their entire support staff but built phone booths for these employees’ use.
We all know that fresh air and light make us happier and healthier, and this knowledge is evident in the tech offices I toured. GitHub’s LEED Gold Certified workspace boasts a roof deck with WiFi that was filled with GitHubbers the day I visited. LinkedIn and Ripple’s spaces also feature roof decks where employees are encouraged to work or meet at any time.
Airbnb’s space features a living green wall in its five- story lobby with panels of plants grown vertically on the wall. Birmingham’s Business Interiors also has a living wall feature.
Roof decks are starting to catch on in Birmingham as well. Telegraph Creative and Lewis Communications’ employees all have the option of working on their roofs.By the end of my visit, the basics of the different spaces started to blend together. However, each space did an excellent job of leaving me with a unique feel for the company’s culture.
For example, Pinterest’s space was crafty and whimsical, again reflective of its business. Many of the walls throughout the space were plywood with the intention that they be decorated over time through make-a-thons where employees “hack” the space to a look of their choosing.
Locally, Strong Automotive, which provides advertising and digital media services to the automotive industry, has built very high-energy (through use of their signature bright green color everywhere) and creative space for its staff to thrive in. Similarly, Daxko has built quirky conference and team rooms with themes like Left Brain and Right Brain, “A House Divided” where the turf-floored room is split down the middle between Auburn and Alabama colors, and the Stork Room for
While many of the innovations in office space seen on my trip will not be embraced in Birmingham for some time, the San Francisco spaces provide ideas for smaller scale innovation anywhere. For instance, creativity and teamwork can be advanced through a focus on culture, an increase in collaboration space, and an abandonment of high-walled cubes. Although the culture may be different in San Francisco and office space more expensive, businesses everywhere are trying to encourage collaboration, reduce their real estate footprints, become attractive to millennial workers, and inspire their existing employees.