Creating an office environment for a quickly growing tech company is no easy task. Scaling culture, accommodating hyper-growth, and infusing the brand into physical space are just a few of the challenges. But while designing SoundCloud’s new Headquarters in Berlin, Germany, I came across a new obstacle that I hadn’t faced at Airbnb in San Francisco; considerable diversity. With employees from 30 different nationalities sharing a single office, how could we design a space to satisfy the diverse work styles and cultures of the people who would live in it?
Believe it or not, we started by going back to the basics. Human beings are far more similar than they are different, so we focused heavily on making sure the basic human needs were not only met but exceeded. We optimised for excellent air quality, natural light for all work stations, and plenty of filtered water stations throughout the space. We created a nap room where employees could sleep and a green room filled with plants for deep breathing. We designed the space to encourage coworkers to move about as much as possible throughout their work day, keeping bodies healthier and spontaneous interactions more prevalent. And perhaps most important of all was focusing on something that architects often overlook, which is how a space sounds. We carefully measured every part of the office and worked to achieve an ideal decibel range depending on the purpose and function of each room. No matter who you are or what kind of job you are doing, the space is comfortable and you can live healthily inside it.
We also focused on creating the right proportion of specific kinds of work spaces, which was tailored to the needs of people within the company. After taking a survey of the entire organization, I found out that more than one third of SoundClouders classified themselves as purely introverts, or people who gain energy by being alone and in quiet spaces. About half said they were both introverted/extroverted, and less than a quarter purely extroverted, or people who gain energy by interacting with others. This meant making sure there were quiet, cozy, focused spaces available for hiding out in every wing, on every floor, in comparison to the notoriously open and overly collaborative offices of most tech companies.
And as silly as it sounds, we also tried our best to make everything in the office as fool proof as possible. With people from all different backgrounds, it can’t be assumed that they will explore new things in the same way. The best way to create an office that allows for the least frustration and the most flow is to design a space that even children can use. This meant choosing items that were simple and essentially unbreakable.
Speaking of children, another thing all humans have in common regardless of background is that we all started out as kids. Creating the opportunity for people to play and be childish is a great way to reach everyone. We designed a playroom with your typical startup ping pong table, but added a working photobooth where people could jump inside and capture goofy faces. Inside the Playroom we also created a photo wall of employees as babies to keep our inner child close to mind.
It also just so happens that as an organisation, SoundCloud loves and values diversity immensely. It makes perfect sense that a diverse employee base is needed to successfully create a platform where one can hear all kinds of sounds from all around the world. In thinking about how we could celebrate this value in the physical space, we added a rainbow to one of our conference rooms in honor of the LGBT community. It has served as a daily reminder that SoundCloud is a place where everyone is welcome.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, we designed the office to remind all employees of the reason why they come to work every day–because they love sound and they are passionate about SoundCloud. Music and sound are incredibly universal languages, no matter your mother tongue. Infusing the brand into the space helped to tie each person more tightly to the product, and more closely to one another. Through the materials, the branding, and the focus on the sound experience, the space carried the identity of SoundCloud which reinforced the common thread that brought everyone together in the first place.
Kelly Robinson is an expert and leader in the future of workplace design. Creating the global headquarters for tech startup giants Airbnb and SoundCloud, Kelly has redefined the way we think about office space. Her unconventional background — economist, international traveller, yacht stewardess, yoga teacher — allows Kelly to deeply understand the importance of space and its impact on how we work, think, feel and relate.