It’s the people, not the space: Startups, culture, and ‘cool’ office spaces

By Editor February 5, 2014
Courtesy of Chicago Creative Space.

Courtesy of Chicago Creative Space.By Max Chopovsky, Chicago Creative Space founder

We have highlighted some cool offices on Chicago Creative Space. Slides, bars, zip lines, graffiti, tattooed floors, you name it. Despite visiting dozens of companies, from startups to large corporations, I am still amazed at their innovation in creating such interesting office environments for their employees. And yet, I still find myself correcting people who believe that building a cool office will create the kind of amazing culture we highlight in our videos. Nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact, this approach could irreparably damage what culture does exist.

Let’s take an example: A visit to Red Frog Events’ office in the River North neighborhood of Chicago will reveal a funky, loud and colorful camp-themed office in a timber loft building (our video here). Replete with tree houses and a slide, this office accurately reflects the irreverent culture of Red Frog. But these office features can prove nearly fatal to an organization if taken out of context. Say a more staid company wants that same slide, thinking that is what creates the Red Frog culture. They install the shiny new slide in their office and quickly find that only a few people use it. Those few people figure: “Why shouldn’t we use this slide? Isn’t that why management got it?” Other people in the office don’t quite agree, seeing it as a waste of valuable work time. The slide and tree houses work, and they work for Red Frog, but assuming they alone will radiate amazing culture is a big mistake.

In reality, slides, kegerators, and hammocks are the last step in a long equation which starts long before a company considers moving to a cool office. Even startup companies have potential for a unique office space; the equation simply starts with a passionate founder and clear vision.

Bryan Johnson, who founded Braintree, proclaimed from day one that he wanted to build an exceptional company full of exceptional people. His passion showed in our CCS interview. Despite handing the reins to a dedicated management team, Braintree is still full of passionate people—because Bryan’s passion was contagious. Clearly, his strategy worked out quite well.

As the company grows, the founder’s vision translates into definitive values, against which all hiring decisions are made. These values are communicated clearly and repeatedly to all employees. Emmi Solutions’ values are plastered all over their West Loop offices. Number one is ‘Deliver Exceptional Client Service,’ and listening to conversations, both internal and with clients, makes it obvious that everyone buys in. In the meantime, employee personalities combine to reinforce and grow the culture of the organization.

With more-and-more passionate employees believing in the founder’s vision and living the core values, the company grows more rapidly. During this growth, a focus on culture is critical, because culture, at its core, is a way to scale behavior. When compared with rules, which are external and must be enforced, culture is a more intrinsic way for employees to embody the values of an organization. Then the space becomes just an extension of that organization—and a physical reinforcement of the company’s statement on culture.

The company’s intentional growth eventually gives it the means to move into a space with some amazing features—the kind of spaces we highlight on Chicago Creative Space. But for every company we feature, there are so many others which are in earlier stages of growth and are rightfully focused on culture, knowing that the space will eventually come.

As the company grows, culture becomes even more critical. Take Google, a company of 50,000 people which is known for an amazing culture and outrageous offices. When we filmed at Google’s Chicago office, the culture question inevitably came up. How does an organization of 50,000 maintain such an amazing culture? My question was met with a bit of confusion: “Why would the culture change if we are all stewards of it? We will only reinforce it.” Google hires carefully, and it shows—every employee is a pillar on which the culture is built and grown.

Even in the planning stages for a new space, smart companies always go back to the vision, the values, and the culture in establishing the layout and requirements; whether or not that includes a kegerator depends if it’s in line with the company’s ethos. A unique office space can’t be rushed—instead, it must be an organic extension of the company’s culture.

Then, and only then, does the office space begin to play its ideal role—that of amplifying an already healthy culture and supporting a thriving enterprise full of passionate people all working toward the same goal.

In reality, a space doesn’t recruit talent (although it may help to get the talent’s attention). Not even the culture per se recruits talent. It is the people that create that culture who recruit talent. And the new recruits reinforce that culture, making the whole organization stronger.

So, the key is not to reverse the causal relationship—i.e., great space builds great culture. Passionate people create a successful company that can eventually afford an amazing space. That is the real cause-and-effect.