Future of Work

What startups can teach us about office design

Jon Frisch has worked in the commercial real business for almost a decade. As a vice president at T3 Advisors, leading the firm’s emerging technology sector, he has advised early and growth stage technology companies in search of creative and cost effective office space. In a short period of time, he has seen a lot of changes in what companies want and how they use their offices.

We caught up with Jon to get his perspective on how offices have evolved and what we might be seeing ventures do next with their spaces.

How have things changed, in terms of how space is being utilized by companies, from when you started working for T3 and today?

I’ve done this for about seven years, and while that might not seem like a long, it’s enough time to have some thoughts and perspectives on office design.

There are a lot of trends that have come and gone over that period.

When I first got into the space business, it was all about open offices. But kind of quickly, a lot of people came out and said that that was stupid, with the noise and distractions and difficulty being productive. So we had to add closed spaces to the open office concept; it turns out that people still wanted conference rooms. Then it became this thing about “we” versus “me” spaces, where people wanted their own spaces, but there could still be room for everyone to come and collaborate together.

I kind of like what it has become today. Now, people want to have choices of how and where they work. So businesses are really thinking about spaces that can be flexible enough so that you can allow for different environments. Whether that’s a standing desk, whether that’s different meeting rooms, having a living room of sorts, an interview room, a space where people can go and be “heads down” and be productive. Now, a lot of companies are designing their offices to those needs.

What have you seen done really well in terms of office design?

When we start to dig a little bit deeper into what actually works best, it all comes back to companies not only utilizing and maximizing space, but also having a good idea how to reflect who they are in their offices.

I had a conversation with Chris Savage at Wistia years ago about this. Those guys have been really thoughtful and methodical about how they have hired. And space has played an integral part in helping them do that; it has played a really positive role in terms of what they’ve been able to build from a culture perspective.

That all came from them have a really sound understanding of who they are, their identity, and thinking deeply about how to reflect that in the space.
So, for example, Chris really wanted to have a large space and a big kitchen area in their original Davis Square office that was separate from the working area where people could come, relax, and hang out. Eventually, he found that people were literally going there on the weekends and bringing their friends and family and just chilling at the Wistia office.

For him, that was awesome. People wanted to be there because they almost felt like it was a home. They had a sound understanding of who they were as a company, and they reflected that in their space.

How does a firm like T3 help companies figure out what might work and what might not in terms of choosing their office?

Our role is to help bring out who a company is in their office. That requires understanding who they are, having that communicated between us and the company. And while we mostly see a need to help early stage companies with that, we sometimes see later stage companies who don’t know what they are doing in that regard. A lot of ventures want to do whatever everyone else is, whether that is good for them or not.

But it is always better if the culture can be reflected in the space. The people who have the best designed spaces use their offices as an inflection point for where they are going as a company.

The best leaders, the best CEOs, use the opportunity of finding a new space and designing it, to reflect on who they are. Where they’ve been, who they are today, and where they are going.

When you go and are looking for a new space, usually, there is something good going on at your company. You are doing something well. You’ve raised money, most likely, and you are about to hire new people, and it’s serious stuff. The tangible space just adds a concreteness to all that.

What mistakes have you seen companies make in choosing or designing their offices?

The thing that I’ve noticed is that the type of companies we work with change rapidly. A lot of the mistakes reflect that.

For example, I can’t tell you how many times someone moves into a space and it isn’t big enough for them because they have grown too fast. Or, on the other side of things, you see companies that anticipate something that they might need in their space, something that others companies may have, and build things they expect their employees would use, and that ends up not being the case. In both examples, time and money gets wasted.

But that tends to be the nature of things. It’s very rarely, if ever, that we see a company lease a space for ten years and never change.

What are the next trends in office space? What do people want now that they didn’t in the past?

There is a lot of silly stuff out there, and I don’t mean that in a negative way.

There is a company in Boston who is putting a slide between floors. Is that new? No. A lot of people have done that. It’s quirky, but it works for them.

I think what Robin is doing with conference room booking and intelligent space type stuff is really interesting and helpful to a lot of other companies.

Also, the remote work thing is becoming big, but we are finding that companies still want physical headquarters.

Office culture is becoming more about lifestyle. The work/life balance thing is discussed so much. But when it comes down to it, it’s just life. And work is part of that life.

People will always need some sort of physical presence, but if working remotely is important, having a physical space can still help companies anchor their identity.

It comes down to giving people choices.