Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh recently jumped into the debate over working from home that was sparked by Yahoo's recall of its remote workers, telling CNBC that he feels that it's difficult to build a strong company culture when you have lots of telecommuters.
"We don't really telecommute at Zappos," Hsieh said. "We want employees to be interacting with each other, building those personal relationships and relationships outside of work as well."
Hsieh's committed to that more than most. He's moving Zappos' headquarters from Henderson, Nevada, to downtown Las Vegas this fall as he invests $350 million dollars of his own money into making the area a place where entrepreneurial-minded people will want to make a career and a life.
We caught up with Zach Ware, who's heading up the development of the new campus in Las Vegas' old City Hall building. The original deal to move its headquarters cost $18 million, and around 1,500 Zappos employees will eventually end up there.
" What's been interesting for us — and Tony will agree with this — when we think about the work we're doing either in the Zappos office building or in the city as a whole, one of the benefits we have is that we don't come to the table with any baggage," says Ware, who had no previous experience in urban development. Hsieh convinced him to leave his job as Zappos' head of product management to take on the project.
That's led to a truly unique approach to building an office. "O ur goal is not to create an office space that you take photos of and you say 'Wow, that's beautiful,'" says Ware. "We're incredibly function-oriented." Zappos' core focus is on company culture and the relationships between employees. To enhance that, as odd as it sounds, parts of the office are deliberately inconvenient.
"We actually make decisions on a regular basis that could in some capacity inconvenience employees, but what they're really designed to do is create more collisions between people," says Ware. "We have a sky bridge that connects the south parking garage to the interior of the building, so you're sort of walking over the street. We're closing that off even though it's very convenient."
And it's not just the skybridge. Many of the 19 doors in the original City Hall won't be available after the redesign. Everyone will have to walk through a central plaza that connects both to Zappos' main office tower and a visitor lobby, which will also serve as a co-working space. "The idea is, by doing that we create a collision point where people are more likely to connect to each other, rather than having them be isolated and never see each other."
It's an idea with a high-profile history. Steve Jobs famously built a large atrium in Pixar Studios' offices to encourage people to constantly interact. Even the bathrooms were in the center of the building, to encourage people from different departments to run into one another.
Tech offices like Facebook and Google are known for their awesome amenities, with amazing food, gyms, and all sorts of services on site, but Zappos deliberately won't have many of these, because along with the Downtown Project, a separate entity funded by Hsieh, they're trying to build a community and revitalize Las Vegas.
"We're not building a lot of the things that companies build into their offices, not because we want to save money, but because we think that a person who's passionate about building a gym is going to build and operate a better gym than Zappos ever could," says Ware. "So why would we even try to build a gym in our offices when we can partner with an entrepreneur that the Downtown Project can invest in?"
The offices are being designed "quite minimally." Rather than building for what the company looks like now, they're building for anything that might happen in the future. None of the furniture is connected to a physical object; desks are linked but can be easily disconnected or moved, the walls are movable as well. So if a team needs to work a different way, or a new product team is formed, the space can be changed, and changed again until it works.
And rather than creating a massive airy space, the company is deliberately reducing the amount of square feet per person. "What we found in certain research on human connections is as you increase the amount of space between people, even if it's 20-30 feet, the connection, the feeling of closeness and the collisions between those people and you, they don't decrease linearly," explains Ware. "They decrease by that distance squared." So instead of the usual 120-square-feet per person, Zappos is shooting for around 75-to-80-square-feet per person. It's not cramped, just carefully designed to keep people closer together.
The broader goal isn't just about the company, it's about the city. With his $350 million investment in Vegas, Hsieh's whole idea is to create a city as a startup.
The Penta Building Group is the general contractor. San Francisco based KMD Architects is the lead architecture firm with Vegas based Carpenter Sellers Del Gatto as associate architect. Jones Lang LaSalle is the construction manager.
Zappos passed along some renderings, courtesy of KMD, of what the finished office will look like. Ware walked us through each of them:
"When you walk into this space the visitor lobby will be on your right and the tower on your left. The tower is the main entry point for 90 percent of our employees. We're just cleaning up that center point and creating a collision point for people in their daily lives, but also a really cool place where you can have an impromptu concert for the larger community."
The Visitors' Lobby
"The visitor lobby is being built basically as a coworking space that not only our employees can use. ... We were considering the environment of, for example, the Ace Hotel in New York. Probably 10 percent of the people hanging out in the lobby are actually staying at the hotel. Startups go there because they want to meet with investors, and investors go because they want to meet with startups. We think that creating that connection point in the larger community is a great way to inspire people to connect with each other in a co-working environment."
The Roof Deck
"There's this area that was historically an employee cafe; it was designed to open up to the rooftop but it was never built. Our thought was, why don't we just knock a hole in the wall and create the door so people can get outside?
The idea is that this is a big collection point, there's a lively cafe, there's a ping pong room and there's an IT genius bar in that area. We actually learned this from Facebook, when someone needs to get their laptop fixed, if they don't have something to do around the place they're getting it fixed, they'll just sit and stare at the tech the whole time.
While you're getting your laptop fixed you can have a cup of coffee and play ping pong and do whatever. The space in the exterior of the rooftop deck is an extension of that; it's a place to hang out to get out of the office, to grab your laptop, grab a book, go read, go work, have a meeting."
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