Changing how business is done, one space at a time

Posted on March 13, 2013


Corporations and entrepreneurs are changing the way business is done, one office space at a time. This may be reflective of a paradigm changing business ideals.

The days of the solitary cubicle are dwindling.

Companies like Google are creating more collaborative workspaces: big open rooms with artwork and design to inspire innovation. There are still cubicles, but they are bunched together and their high walls have come down so co-workers can share ideas, or to just say hello.

Google employee Aurimas Liutikas said such and environment helps him relax. “Computer science people perform better when they’re not restrained or under pressure,” said Liutikas, a software engineer at Google’s California office.

Across Chicago and across America, there is a spectrum of office spaces from simple, gray cubicles to places such as Red Frog Events with color, collaboration, and office space punctuated with artificial trees, foosball tables and even “kegerator” beer dispensers.

Creative workspace adds value to the economy, said Teri Flynn, president of Flynn Architecture in California.

“What our main product that we seem to make the money off of is innovation: coming up with the next best thing,” she said. “It’s critical for companies to leverage creativity and innovative ideas for people”

Creative workspaces bring the left mind and right mind together. Many find creative design alluring to clients and employees. But entrepreneurs and experts agree:

It’s more about the functionality than it is about design. It’s not about making business fun, but about making business grow at a faster rate.

What does this changing work environment say about the changing nature of business? Four Chicago workspaces reveal how design can inspire innovation.

Red Frog Events

Red Frog is an extreme example of creative space. Nelson interior design firm, which also designed Google, sculpted a space that brought to life the corporate culture Red Frog leaders envisioned.

“Culture is so important,” said business director Stephanie Schroeder. “We call ourselves the Red Frog family. So we want to treat people like family.

“We want them to be able to come to work in a place that they feel comfortable, that they’re able to celebrate and enjoy and have fun while they’re here.”

There are decorated meeting rooms with Lego, puzzle and Polaroid themes. The kitchen is affectionately called “the Mess Hall,” where Schroeder said many employees meet to collaborate on projects over a meal or a beer.

The office has a $100,000 tree house used as conference space, and the office is scattered with flags of employees’ alma maters, s’mores dispensers and white board walls decorated with doodles.

As the workday expands past nine-to-five, Schroeder said the space creates an environment people enjoy. In an age where people are glued to technology and can just as easily work from home, “Camp Red Frog” creates incentive to come to work. Schroeder said adding the space works well to recruit top talent.

Full-time employees have their own offices, and the “tadpoles,” or seasonal interns, work in the collaborative cubicle space, much like Google has, Schroeder said.

This collaborative atmosphere works for Red Frog, Schroeder said.

The company, which began as a start-up out of one man’s kitchen in 2009, moved to an office in Lincoln Park the following year. After moving its office to River North in late 2010, the company expanded their office from one floor to three, and from just a few employees to more than 115.

It now takes up 36,000 square feet of office space and incorporates not only design, but also vision.

Schroeder said the company will continue to expand with more space, more events, and more employees.

Design Cloud Studio
Design Cloud is just more than a year old, and was started by Nick Stocking, who previously worked in the real estate industry for 10 years.

The space is built out of an art studio and nurtures a cooperative of artists, designers and developers. Stocking said the space sparks productivity because people can worry about their own creative work while delegating business responsibilities such as accounting and business development.

Stocking built a space where people with diverse talents join to build products, including labels for Lincoln Wine Company or a website for TSA contractors, according to the Design Cloud website.

Though a much smaller space, at 1500 square feet, Design Cloud, also utilizes white boards, comfortable work areas in the form of couches instead of camp furniture and décor that matches the business culture Stocking envisioned.
“It’s really not about the space, it’s about the culture we’re breeding,” Stocking said, adding that it’s also about “building a brand that no one can repeat.”

Stocking said this type of workspace entices entrepreneurs who are looking for a physical space to nurture business ideas. Design Cloud also provides space for smaller start-ups to rent when they want to work outside of the home.

Inspire Business Center
Three blocks south of Design Cloud, David Zazove finished building Inspire Business Center approximately two years ago.

“The idea of the business center is not something new,” said Zazove. He said he saw the need for better facilities to fit the needs of clients.

The building was initially created for individual workers such as accountants, lawyers, and insurance brokers as well as off-site employees of larger corporations. Zazove recently enhanced the space to incorporate a collaborative open space for smaller businesses and startups to rent for $150 a month.

“The thing that’s really changing is that collaborative work spaces, even in traditional offices, take a whole floor rather than offices,” Zazove said. Zazove initially had no plans to build the space, but did so to feed the growing trend.

Red walls, leather chairs, and artwork make the building’s interior aesthetically pleasing and individual clients range from lawyers, to insurance firms. But Zazove insists that the building’s success is not about the design, but about the function.

“I think it’s because of the way people work – no paper, laptops.” Like Schroeder, Zazove agreed that people could work from home. But the value about a business center is that it brings diverse professionals to one space.

A startup company, for example, can gain legal or accounting expertise from people in the same building. In effect, professionals gain clientele.
Collaboration does not just yield a place to bounce ideas off one another. It creates a network – a corporate community where business can thrive, Zazove said.

Zazove points to another important function of collaborative space: shared resources. Cost of parking space, high-speed technology and meeting space for clients is all shared amongst tenants.

The business center had a slow start, Zazove said. But the building is now at more than 90 percent occupancy.

Perhaps one of the most widely recognized of Chicago’s creative workspaces is 1871, Chicago’s start-up incubator. 1871 opened in early 2012 and is a 50,000 square foot space on the 12th floor of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart in River North.

As a startup hub, its main purpose is to provide affordable space for Chicago’s entrepreneurs, according to its website.

Stella Fayman, an entrepreneur who works at 1871, says the space inspires innovation and collaboration.

“1871 is a good place to meet people and just get a pulse on what’s happening,” Fayman said. “It serves as a really great focal point or physical representation of what’s happening in Chicago,” Fayman said that when people want to see the start-up community in Chicago, they know that 1871 is the place to go.

Like Red Frog, 1871 has a room with a ping pong table and a stocked fridge of beer for a tiny get-away in the middle of the workday. Many at 1871 agree that this is a great place to meet other entrepreneurs and share ideas.

“I feel honored that we are accepted into the community, to work around the peers,” said Jimmy Odom, another entrepreneur at 1871. “We’ve got the same passions and motivations, without the community we would be spread out – we wouldn’t be so inspired.”

What it means for business
Red Frog, Design Cloud, Inspire and 1871 all recognize how space can inspire individualism and entrepreneurship.

The creative workspace may be a good way to do business, but the companies’ leaders agree that there are limits to how creative a workspace can be. Some companies can’t adopt the same kind of model.

Google employee Liutikas agreed. “This is not for everyone,” he said, giving the example of a former classmate who works for a business technology firm and has to dress in business attire to exude the professionalism clients expect.

“If I saw clients every day I wouldn’t be wearing jeans either.” This is largely different from the Red Frog culture, where much of the design’s purpose is to entice clientele.

Liutikas also said this type of workspace is for people who are self motivated. “It helps that my cubicle faces a wall. My friend has a cubicle facing a glass window, and he has to say hi to everyone each time they walk by.”

Stocking also said that though 1871 may be a great place to start a business, it may not be a place to keep nurturing one as the environment can also be distracting.

Added Fayman: “It’s definitely hard to get meaningful work done because there’s just so many great people.”

Still, Stocking said he believes it inspires people to get out and grow their own businesses. It inspires people to take their start-ups out of their kitchens and into the world.

Can artwork and tree houses punctuate the offices of law firms, accountant offices, and investment bankers? Some prefer a level of old school professionalism, giving some companies the comfort of a structured workplace when it is most needed.

Flynn said she has never thought of a financial company needing to be innovative. “It’s scary because when they got innovative before they put our economy into a tailspin,” she said.

But she said that even financial companies are creating space that is collaborative, though not necessarily creative. Collaboration, if nothing else, can fit more people in and save companies money, she said.

Stocking said with a caution: space must be crafted carefully, and only works in specific circumstances. Design Cloud is not a place for bigger businesses to set-up shop. Zazove said that Inspire Business was not the place for bigger corporations that needed a high rise in the loop.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for some design, when needed, as shown in the case of Inspire Business Center, where even professionals make room for creativity.

Design can’t exist for the purpose of design alone. Design must meet function. These four businesses have molded design to fit function, optimizing business growth and productivity. This is why Google and Red Frog spent so much time with Nelson to assess corporate culture and find a design that enveloped company needs and employee attitudes.

So for the future? Not all offices will grow trees and hang up paintings. Gray may be good for some. But if Stocking is right, creative and collaborative design may inspire a number of entrepreneurs out of cubicles into their own envisioned corporate culture, simply because Chicago is making room for this to be possible.