Not your parents’ office? Now it is: Tech workspaces start to grow up
The Ping-Pong tables have given way to long work tables, beanbag chairs to straight-backed couches, beer taps to cold-brew coffee.
Boston’s tech workplaces are growing up. Play spaces that were designed to recruit twentysomething workers are out; low-key but tasteful furniture is in, as are areas set aside for quiet work and group collaboration.
You know, like a regular office.
One factor behind the switch: the high cost of renting or owning offices, which is forcing area employers to make tough choices maximizing the utility of their space. At the same time, tech companies seeking to diversify their largely young, white male workforces are choosing office designs that emphasize professionalism, wellness, and work-life balance over frat house fun.
Matt Lock, managing director at the design firm Unispace, said his clients want to show prospective hires, above all, that theirs is a space for getting things done.
“For hiring and recruiting talent, there’s much more of an interest now in what they actually can accomplish and who they’re going to work with than how cool the office looks,” Lock said.
Boston’s tech offices were never as ostentatious as those in Silicon Valley — notorious for ball pits, hammocks, and adult-sized slides — but many businesses here did mimic some of the playground aesthetic.
“As tech has grown up, there’s been a recognition that this is not an extension of a college dorm for everyone,” said Amy Spurling, the 40-year-old chief executive of the Boston startup Compt, which helps companies manage workplace perks. “We need to have a work environment that makes more than just one group of people happy.”
And there’s a practical element, too, said Spurling: “Hey, if you’re 40, getting out of a beanbag chair hurts!”
Perhaps no local tech firm exemplifies the trend better than HubSpot, whose East Cambridge headquarters is like a life-sized diorama of the recent evolution of tech office design. Kenneth Papa, HubSpot facilities director, said tech offices a decade ago sent a fairly obvious message to workers: you were expected to be constantly on the job.
The older parts of HubSpot’s office have aspects like that, places where food is always available and a lobby designed to suggest constant activity. But Papa said more recent additions serve a more diverse workforce that has emerged at one of the region’s biggest and most successful tech companies.
“It’s murky ground. It’s very much a gray area where you build something to get people to never want to leave versus building something that people want, could use, and will give them a better quality of life,” Papa said.
There is still a nap room, yes, and table tennis remains popular with the engineers. But more recent additions to the HubSpot office, Papa said, include an expansive maternity suite where the walls are decorated with quotes from famous women writers; a quiet area decked out with safari decor; and a verdant meditation room lit dimly by glowing geodes. That last one was the product of a contest for workplace improvements.
Even the candy dispensers are now filled mostly with nuts and granola.
For smaller companies, office choices are driven largely by practicality. Many employers say it’s essential to locate near transit hubs to attract workers. Proximity comes at a premium, so companies want to maximize the value of every inch.
At Janeiro Digital, a software company that recently moved to offices near North Station, that meant leaving behind a big shuffleboard table. There are better uses for space, said Janeiro chief executive Jonathan Bingham. Janeiro still has a tiny foosball game that can be played on top of a table, and a video game system that connects to a big office TV.
But both can be moved to make room for staff gatherings, client visits, and other functions. The result is a modern, industrial-style office with an open area off the kitchen offering a big view of the North End.
“The ability to come in and have everything you need to do your job well, that’s a company’s first priority. It shouldn’t be your second,” Bingham said. “If you’re going to set a culture for everybody to come in and have a good time, and then do your job really well, that’s probably a mistake.”
Bingham and others said workers also prefer to have more security at their offices, such as security guards and other staff on hand during late hours. The shooting at YouTube headquarters in California has also touched off a new round of discussion over workplace safety measures.
Another factor, said Aaron Jodka, research director with real estate services firm Colliers International in Boston, is the whole phenomenon of co-working and shared office spaces. It’s common for a company or workers these days to start out in co-working spaces. That may imbue some with a preference for collaborative space, which is increasingly in demand.
And landlords are also getting into the perks game, Jodka said, giving companies less of an incentive to build out their own extras.
For instance, CloudHealth Technologies, an IT software startup, is moving from Fort Point to 100 Summer Street, an office tower that has its own space where offerings include free drinks, coffee, private showers, and games.
Melodye Mueller, vice president of marketing at CloudHealth, said this allowed the company to incorporate designs that employees wanted: space to work efficiently together with easy access to management, and space to focus.
“They were screaming for quiet,” she said.
There are still companies trying to program fun spaces into their workplace designs. Bynder, a brand management company with offices in Fort Point, has devoted a big area to a pool table felted in the light blue color of the company’s logo.
Office manager Nonet Muhring said the pool table remains a substantial draw for employees needing a change of scenery.
Morgan Mosher, principal at T3 Advisors, which helps tech companies design offices, said employers should listen to employees about the workplace setup. After all, every choice will have an effect on who comes to work there, and how productive they’ll be.
She said a company considering installing something that would be appropriate in a rec room should think hard about whether it will really benefit employees, or whether it’s just “a cliche thing to have in the office.”
“Startups are now trying to realize what amenities are actually important,” Mosher said. “Amenities are now focused on what actually makes people happy.”