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Dropbox, Airbnb, and 99designs: How their redesigned offices hint at future of work

ZDNet spoke to key figures behind recent redesigns for Dropbox, Airbnb, and 99designs' Australian headquarters to discover how their more fluid and open office spaces are optimised for smarter working.
Written by Jonathan Chadwick, Contributor

In 2014, Dropbox announced the opening of its first Australian office, in Sydney, as a local base for the company's APAC operations. Once Martin Place was settled upon as a location, the company reached out to Gensler, a design and architecture firm that has also completed office fit-outs globally for Facebook, Airbnb, and Etsy.

Free PDF download: How to Optimize the Smart Office

Speaking to ZDNet, Gensler managing director for Australia Tom Owens and marketing specialist Andrew Waddle said that while some of their clients provide a very detailed brief for a new office space, Dropbox was slightly different.

"They came to us with a very specific and unusual request: To give them a home," Owens said. "They wanted a home for their staff. We decided to take that literally, but flip it a little bit."

For the fit-out, Gensler embraced elements that would recreate a typical Australian residential home, from the embedded 'welcome mat' just within the office entrance, to the meeting room that doubles as a dining room, and the 'outdoor' courtyard.


Dropbox's Sydney office focuses on open spaces

Image: Katherine Lu

Owens said that the design had to ease the 'flow' of employee movement, which was achieved by a very open design without set physical boundaries between rooms. As much as 50 percent of the design fit-out was dedicated to the office's communal spaces, he told ZDNet.

Dropbox Sydney's office foyer leads to the living room, a big break-out area furnished with long sofas in front of wall-mounted big screens. Owens described it as the 'showpiece' of the office, a place where employees would all gravitate to throughout the day, for one-on-one chats, presentations, all-hands meetings, or after-work events.

Next to the living area is the bar and kitchen area, where employees have breakfast, lunch, and dinner catered for them every day, as an extra chance to be able to check-in with each other. There are also a variety of meeting rooms and booths dotted around the office, one of which is next to a walk-in garden.


One of Dropbox's meeting rooms is situated next to a walk-in garden

Image: Katherine Lu

Greenery is in abundance around the whole office, for health and psychological benefits, but also in keeping with the feel of a home, Owens said. The windows are also vast and span entire walls, reducing the need for artificial light. The office also has multiple 'Dropstops' -- IT help desks dotted around the office where employees can flag issues and connect with the A/V technology.

Rather than having the rigid, set-in-stone personal work spaces such as desks or secluded booths, the fit-out gave Dropbox employees the choice to work anywhere they felt comfortable, just like a family member in the home. By embracing a variety of different workspaces and encouraging movement, employees are more likely to interact, which can lead to improved employee productivity and relationships, as well as better workplace ergonomics.

"It's all about giving them choice in how and where they want to work through the day, through the rhythm of the day, even before work, after work," Waddle stressed. "The space is designed to encourage bumps and those serendipitous encounters throughout the day."

"If their task changes, their needs change, they can move and have that change adapt to them," he added.


Dropbox's "courtyard"

Image: Katherine Lu

The benefit of Dropbox as a product is how it enables remote working for employees all around the world. For Dropbox as a company, was such an accommodating design part of an attempt to bring their own employees back to the office?

"What we've noticed is that when companies have made an effort to reduce their footprint globally and ask people to work from home, they get a certain output from that," Owens said. "And what happened is, they didn't have a place to go, nobody was meeting anymore, and then you lose touch."

"People start to get disconnected from the rest of their colleagues because they may see them on the screen but you really need to have a face-to-face. [Dropbox employees] want to be together when they're working, even though they know they can be separate. They can be anywhere in the world and still work together, but this is how they work best -- together."

On whether the future of work of work will be more office-based or telecommuting-based, Owens said that it will continue to depend on the company, their industry, and their requirements.

"I think each company dictates how they work best together. If you're purely sales, it's a very different response than if you're engineers or if you're in insurance or if you're a lawyer. A lot of companies require face-to-face; some can do it over Skype.

"That's the workplace of the future in our opinion: It's choice -- you give them the flexibility to move around, to work in a quiet zone and an open zone, in a focus zone, in their workstation, in the kitchen, wherever it is, you have to give it to them, you have to design it purposefully for them to be able to use it."

"You need a place that everyone can call their own and it's all about fostering that sense of community," Waddle added. "The more that the workplace aligns with the company's core values is really critical."



Airbnb's moto of "be anywhere" was applied to its new Sydney office

Image: James Horan

In May 2015, Sydney-based design firm The Bold Collective received a call from the offices of Airbnb in San Francisco, asking if it would be interested in working on a workplace project. Airbnb's Sydney office at the time was very small, The Bold Collective's design director Monika Branagan told ZDNet, and the online marketplace had located a new premises in Surry Hills that would better accommodate its fast-growing team.

The Bold Collective accepted the project and Branagan and a colleague were flown to Airbnb's San Fransisco office to spend time soaking up the company environment and thinking how that could be translated to a resdesign in Sydney.

"[The San Francisco office] is quite a spectacular office, it's got 800 staff over multiple floors, so it's their main campus," Branagan told ZDNet. "It has multiple floors with a central void that goes all the way through the whole building. And so basically you can see all aspects as you walk around the perimeter of the void, you can look down and see all of the different work settings and meeting rooms."

The Bold Collective wanted to embrace the same element of hospitality that Airbnb says is part of its critical company values. At the core of Airbnb is the connection between people and spaces, The Bold Collective said, and Airbnb wanted to transport that to the new Sydney workspace. So each meeting room of the Surry Hills office would resemble the interior of a typical Airbnb listing around the world.


Airbnb Sydney's meeting rooms were inspired by listings on its website

Image: James Horan

"Within each office around the world the local team there chooses their favourite listings that they've stayed in," Branagan said. "One was 'in Cuba' ... that was a great fun over-the-top room, [with a] stencil-tiled floor and faux marbled columns and some pretty hideous clashing colours on the cornices and rosettes."

The company also designed a 'Kangaroo Valley' lounge room, with a typically Australian feel, and a Swedish archipelago room with graphics on the back wall to give the feel of looking through a window onto a coastline. And although they all focused on aesthetics, functionality was built in from the start, Branagan stressed. Part of the challenge was integrating standard modern-day office equipment into such a residential space without it looking out of place.

"There are acoustic ceilings in every area; we lined these quiet nooks with custom shagpile that looks a little bit like coral on the wall," she said. "Functionality of each room was determined a lot by the A/V that we put in there, so they really wanted each room to be performing to its optimum in terms of what activity would be happening in each work setting."

Airbnb wanted to increase the flow of employee movement around the new office and offer employees more choice on where they could work. As well as the meeting rooms, spaced around the office are collaborative booths, a 'brainstorming area', a big break-out area, and quiet space nooks, styled to look like board-clad huts on the Victorian coastline.


Airbnb's Sydney office was give more of a residential than a corporate feel

Image: James Horan

On completion around five months later, the end result was a space that could easily be mistaken for the home of a large family, rather than the regional office of global company. And while Airbnb Sydney still welcomes remote working as an option for its staff, coming to work to be with their team is something employees choose to do rather than are forced to do, Branagan said.

"The core element that Airbnb looks for in all their offices is attitude of hospitality," she said. "Their spaces need to be hospitable and very inviting. Their staff and clients and general visitors need to feel very relaxed, almost a little bit homely. It's obviously a very non-corporate space but also not a typical workspace; it has that more residential feel to it and homely softness."

"They are encouraged to work anywhere; Airbnb's tagline of 'belong anywhere' is applied to all their workplaces," said Branagan.



99designs' Melbourne office was inspired by "the great Melbourne cafe"

Image: 99designs

99designs is an online marketplace that connects over 220,000 freelance graphic designers to businesses around the world. Founded just over 10 years ago when spun off from SitePoint, the startup moved to San Francisco in 2010 before relocating its headquarters back to Melbourne late last year in preparation for listing on the ASX.

99designs CEO Patrick Llewellyn oversaw the redevelopment of the company's new headquarters in Richmond. The company used Breathe Architecture for a design that would replicate the casual feel of 'the great Melbourne cafe'. At the time, Breathe was more used to doing restaurant fittings, Llewellyn told ZDNet.

"We chose them over perhaps more traditional office architects at the time because it was really important we had a design feel that we felt matched our personality," he said. "We wanted a fluid space, we wanted an open plan. We needed meeting rooms ...we wanted a kitchen area, a cafe seating area, a communal table -- they were kind of our must-haves. I think the cafe vibe is probably a bit quintessentially Australian, certainly Melbourne. We've always believed in the power of caffeine."

Llewellyn said that 99designs' office building was formerly a knitting mill, meaning it already had plenty of natural light from 20-plus foot high walls, expansive areas for all-hands meetings and developer events, and old wooden floors that would fit with the 'boutique' vibe.


Meeting rooms were built into the main space

Image: 99designs

99designs employees all have their own personal space, although there is an area of stand-up desks that they can hot-desk on. New employees can choose their own laptop, the number of monitors, and either a sitting or standing desk. And although employees do have their own space, they're not set in stone; their designated spot can move when they start working on different projects.

"There's a fair bit of fluidity and people move around the office," Llewellyn added. "People sit in the cafe. People go to quiet rooms, people lie on bean bags. It's a lot less cubicle-like. I think that helps for productivity to have space where people can go and switch up the day.

"People were pretty unhappy in our last office. We were on a number of floors and we really didn't like being spread out, it really impacted communication and morale all round. So moving to a nice big floor plate that allows everyone to be on the same floor has been really beneficial and really improved productivity, just because it's a lot easier to communicate but also to have a sense of togetherness."

Breathe Architecture also installed 'glass tank-like' meeting rooms with long glass walls and vortex soundproofting within the main space, as well as exercise areas, showers, and a 'wellness room' for returning mothers or just any employee to rest and recuperate.


Unconventional office features could be an important part of attracting talent going forward

Image: 99designs

Llewellyn said that going forward, extra features like these will be an important part of competing for talent, as well as keeping employees coming into the office to work, especially as newer generations rely more on distant forms of communication.

"I think we'll continue to see levels of remote access increase, because the newer generation is just much more comfortable in that communication format. Kids don't talk on phone as much as they do chat. You date via chat. Messaging is the new communication medium. But then I also think video and livestreaming, we're really at the beginning and I think we'll see more and more of that.

Llewellyn added that organisations are at "the precipice" of working out how to incorporate remote and work-from-home workers, which will mean that the office space will continue to evolve. Different employees will ultimately have different preferences over whether to telecommute or work in the office; the important thing is for a company to give them the choice, he added.

"We have people who work from home because of family commitments and we certainly provide flexibility in this office for people for people to work from home. We encourage people to work from the office because we like the collaboration that occurs in person but we also value the flexibility of providing them the ability to work from home. I think the future office will continue to augment with remote and work-from-home just because all organisations today are thinking about how to go where the talent is.

"I'm friends with people who have completely 100 percent remote organisations. And that's a really interesting development. We're only just at the beginning of that. I think trying to build a culture within that framework is really an interesting challenge but it's one that we'll see more and more people take on over the next 20 years as global accessibility continues to evolve."


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