Shopify experiments in Toronto with next generation of open concept offices

There has been a lot of research on whether or not open offices work. But Shopify designed its Toronto office to be a new hybrid that gives employees both openness and privacy.

Do open concept offices work? Depends if there's a Sofa Box

Identical desks and chairs adorn all four floors of the Shopify office. (Paula Wilson/Shopify)

What separates an executive from an intern?

In three out of four Canadian offices, not a lot. The two likely sit near each other, share resources, collaborate on work and even dress similarly.

That's largely because it's the age of the open concept, when corner offices, secretaries and employee privacy are increasingly rare. In an open office, everyone sits together, though sometimes sitting at different desks every day.

There have been mounds of research done on whether or not open offices are liked by employees or have positive effects on productivity.

But Shopify, a Canadian e-commerce company that develops software for online stores, wasn't completely satisfied with the data. So instead, it polled its own employees, hired professional help and designed its Toronto office to be a new kind of hybrid.

Growing offices

Shopify began its life as Snowdevil, an online snowboarding gear store, in 2004. Its cofounder, Tobias Lütke, wasn't satisfied with how customers bought products online, and decided to create his own e-commerce platform. Today, more than 200,000 online stores use the software.

While a digital company can grow at that scale in that amount of time, it's more difficult — or probably impossible — for an office space with rows of cubicles to expand along with it.

So, in 2014, before the company opened its Toronto office at King Street West and Spadina Avenue, Shopify spent a lot of time conceiving a new, scalable office space, said Satish Kanwar, the company's director of product.

The building makes its home in a 100-year-old warehouse space at King and Spadina. Above is a lunch room. (Paula Wilson/Shopify)

The company mixed aspects of the standard corporate office with a traditional open concept to create a modular hybrid.

Shopify took three steps to create its new 35,600-square-foot office. In addition to polling its employees on what they look for in an office space ...

  • It hired Toronto firm M-S-D-S Studios to add design expertise.
  • And it took winning aspects of Shopify's other four offices while tailoring its Toronto office to the local "subculture."

The results have received praise from international business and architecture magazines, with Inc. Magazine this week calling it one of the "world's coolest offices."

Introverts v. Extroverts

Collaboration between managers and employees has jumped by nearly 50 per cent since the 1990s, according to a Harvard Business Review study, largely thanks to open offices. Being in the exact same work space is affecting everything from how employees dress to what time everyone clocks in and out for the workday.

Other studies show workers are less creative and less motivated in open concept offices.

But from the outset of Shopify's office rethink, Kanwar acknowledged that open offices can be as rigid as more conservative ones.

Fundamentally, his view was that office layouts should reflect the employees and the work they were doing. For instance, marketing employees work differently than engineering employees, and so their working spaces should also be different.

Individual employees also differ. Kanwar said the employees at Shopify were evenly split between introverts, valuing privacy and distraction-free time, and extroverts, who thrived on open collaboration.

"We recognized there are people who are predominately introverts and others who are extroverts," Kanwar said. "So we wanted to create a very flexible environment that was both extremely private and extremely open."

The Sofa Box

Sofa Boxes can provide acoustic and visual privacy while still essentially "working in the open." (Paula Wilson/Shopify)

Kanwar took that research to M-S-D-S Studios, and that firm worked with the Shopify team to design and manufacture customized furniture for the diverse teams.

The marquee piece of furniture in the office might be the Sofa Box. It's a four-walled room on wheels, made of noise-cancelling cushions on the inside and designed so employees can see through only one wall.

"It's like sitting in the open, but getting the visual and acoustic time to work or write. So someone can spend a day working privately but essentially out in the open," said Kanwar. "And three or four of them can be wheeled together to make a meeting room."

Kanwar said the Sofa Boxes — "the coolest name I could think of for them" — were popular with employees and super comfortable to spend time in.

Office space

Every desk in Shopify's four-floor office in Toronto is identical. And the desks in the Toronto office are identical to those in the Ottawa office, and the newly opened San Francisco office, and all of Shopify's offices.

"The benefit in designing this office is we had other existing office operating on larger scales," said Kanwar. "When people traveled between offices, there was very consistent atmosphere."

Even the chairs are interchangeable.

This encourages employees to move around — a form of "hotdesking" or shifting desks even during the day. "Because our projects are always evolving, we expect employees to be more mobile," said Kanwar. "It's a low-cost, low-hurdle effort for people to reorganize into new teams."

And soon, employees will be able to move outdoors — the company's patio is set to open in the next month.

"Our goal at the end of the day is to create environments where people feel comfortable and can do their best work," Kanwar said.

The staff kitchen doubles as a bar for events. (Paula Wilson/Shopify)


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