To reinforce their reputation as revolutionary innovators, tech companies and startups resist stodgy, traditional business practices at every turn, including office design.
By Jason Albanese
Most people have heard of Google's immense playground of an office in Mountain View, CA, or Gawker's relaxed work environment, complete with rooftop patio and fancy carpentry. The hope isn't to make the workspace less professional or productive--it's that, when given a space that isn't bleak and boring, employees will enjoy doing their work and be more productive as a result.
The tech industry has had such a big influence on the business world in general, and these once revolutionary design ideas have become pretty commonplace. More and more companies are doing away with formal dress codes and cubicles in exchange for open floor plans and shuffleboard tables.
But as fun as these workspaces can be, these innovations aren't valuable if they don't actually encourage and facilitate productivity from the people using them. In fact, businesses that clutter their offices with redundant, new technologies and loud wall art are only hurting their bottom lines, sacrificing work quality and resources for a skin-deep veneer of hipness. By training a minimalist eye on some aspects of your office design, you can achieve the open, fun qualities of the modern workspace without getting bogged down by frills and clutter.
Get Down to the Details
When we set out to design the offices at Centric Digital, a huge priority was to encourage collaboration. In turn, we thought long and hard about the tools we would give our employees.
While that deliberation required a lot of time spent on the details, it solved for one of the most basic principles of working life: give someone a tool that works every time and they'll become more productive. Give people a tool that frequently doesn't work and is a pain to use and they're not going to use it. When people aren't using basic collaboration tools like whiteboards because they're designed poorly, the negative impact on your business is obvious.
That's why we designed our office with user experience as a top priority in every area we could. We chose glass whiteboards that looked sleek and could be cleaned instantly; we used felt erasers instead of those Expo ones that never really do the job; and most importantly, we picked something that's simple and easy to use, rather than some kind of bulky, unnecessary new technology.
Go for What's Simple, Not What's Newest
Continuing with the whiteboard example, many people asked me why we didn't go with one of those fancy new "smartboards," workplace tools that use touchscreen technology instead of dry erase markers and can print out what you've written on them. But while it may seem advantageous to have something that looks like it belongs on the Starship Enterprise in your office, it's pointless if the product doesn't actually make your work easier.
Smartboards don't run on any of the major platforms like Android or iOS. The cost of installation wouldn't just be in purchasing the hardware itself, but retrofitting your entire office to work with technology that could become obsolete in a matter of months. Are all those expenses really worth getting a whiteboard that prints when you could just as easily take a photo with your smartphone?
This principle applies to software, too. We collaborate with clients and team members around the world, so we use video conferencing technology, not clunky office phone sets. And instead of using the heavyweight, costly conferencing solutions offered by major tech companies, we just use Google Hangouts. 50% of the world uses Gmail, and those who don't can just use UberConference to dial in to ongoing calls--why use big, heavy tech solutions that require an onboarding session to understand instead of something that everyone already knows how to use?
It's part of the same user experience principle: create something "light" and easy, and your office will both look more modern and function more productively. Create something "heavy" and difficult, and your office runs the risk of becoming a distracting, disorganized disaster.
Open Your Office
Another trend we immediately jumped on when we opened our current offices in Manhattan's Flatiron District was the open floor plan, meant to increase collaboration by making the whole office space visible. Centric's entire leadership team embraced that idea because we really do value transparency, collaboration, and making everyone feel like they're truly part of the team. As we often say, "We don't have an open-door policy--we just don't have doors!"
That being said, open floor plans require their own balance if they're not going to defeat their own purpose. For instance, if there are no partitions at all, sound is going to travel too freely and make your office noisy and distracting. Putting up just enough barriers and soundproofing mechanisms to block sound without closing communication isn't always easy, but it keeps you from hampering the objective you were aiming for when you chose an open floor plan in the first place.
Another common tendency in workplace design is the impulse to shove as many people into an open office as possible, given all the open space that a lack of cubicles creates. But this, too, can backfire: cramped working conditions create a sweatshop-like environment that does little to increase morale or make people feel like their superiors are accessible. Furthermore, mashing people together with small desks decreases office mobility. You want people to be able to get up and take their work to a conference room without being interrupted, not step over one another's toes every time they have to use the bathroom.
Only Buy What You Need
This last point is a simple one: unless you have Google money, don't try to build your own Googleplex.
Things like branded pinball machines and on-site sushi chefs may make people feel like they're somewhere truly progressive for a few days, but afterwards, they just become unhelpful, expensive distractions from work. Your team can go out to have drinks, play games, or whatever it is they want to do to get a break from the grind, but when they do all their leisure activities in the building, that's what they'll associate the space with.
The same can be said of the architecture and decor of your office. Drapes and mahogany are "heavy," ostentatious additions to a space that should be screaming pragmatism. What's more, these things aren't needed to be stylish or modern. Minimalist, uncluttered environments not only encourage productivity, but are almost always aesthetically pleasing. Think about the Apple store, for instance--would it look half as appealing if it had all the hokey fake wood and exposed brick of an Urban Outfitters?
Minimalism in all aspects of office design isn't just an aesthetic choice--it's a business one. A lack of clutter drives productivity, making every task your employees perform a little simpler and easier. Simplifying the user experience for everyone means eradicating bureaucracy, doing away with clunky organizational structures, and creating an effective, more attractive workplace.
Jason Albanese is the co-founder and CEO of Centric Digital, an Inc. 500 company and one of the fastest growing digital services & solutions companies in the country. Based in New York City, Centric Digital is a longtime client of Office Furniture Heaven and is currently working with us on furnishing their newly expanded office.
This article originally appeared on Inc.