As the Senior Manager of Workplace Projects and R&D at Atlassian, Omar Ramirez advances workplace solutions that empower the technology company’s people. He’s developed a proven record of workplace innovation and success, working for multiple tech companies at a variety of scales from his early days in the mailroom through managing international fit-outs.
With current responsibilities and projects for Atlassian in North America and Europe, Omar is helping shape his company’s workplaces of the future every day. We recently caught up with him to discuss design, data, workplace and more.
Core to Atlassian’s mission is the goal to “unleash the potential in every team” for its customers. How does this value promise play out in the design of your internal workplaces?
For us, we’re on the same mission internally. We want to enable our teams to do their best work. For that reason, we focus a vast amount of time, energy and research into our spaces. We want our employees to be able to work the way they want to work, from anywhere in the office or the world.
How do you feel technology company workplaces are different from other market sectors? What’s a unique challenge and opportunity facing your industry?
I think technology companies have the benefit of having a group of users who are hyper-aware of what makes them productive. For that reason, we have to work even harder to be a few steps ahead of our teams and to provide solutions that truly work for them. One unique challenge that is tied to this is keeping up with the latest research into the workplace. There’s always a new thinkpiece or article on what is good or bad in the world of workplace, and we make an effort to be able to intelligently discuss these topics with our internal teams.
Designing based on data is critical, but what types of data do you think are most important to study and rely on to fuel design decisions?
Data is great – specifically, information on how people utilize spaces. That said, data is useless unless you actually understand how teams are organized and how they work together. You need to be obsessed with learning about your users at an individual level first, and then you can focus on utilizing and interacting with data. In the hunt for data, many teams forget about knowing their customer.
In preparation for this Q+A, I watched a video of you talking about the experience economy. Can you elaborate on what this concept means to Atlassian?
Our team is specifically focused on the experience of our physical spaces. The Workplace Experience team is a part of the People org at Atlassian. This enables us to tie into the entire employee experience, from your first on-site visit to your last.
What’s one disruption coming to workplaces in the next five years that isn’t being talked about enough?
The biggest disruption I see is the pushback on digital and the need to reconnect with the physical world. We’re always told that technology is becoming bigger and better, and everything will be tech-enabled, but there’s inevitably a pushback from this where the pendulum swings to the other direction and people want spaces without technology. Some of the most used spaces in our workplaces are the ones with a couch and coffee, not screens.
What’s been the proudest moment for the SF flagship location since opening the space, and why?
I think my proudest moment was seeing over 40 people gathering in our common area on the first evening, and then on the next evening, and the next… I was worried it might stop after the first week, but the space just keeps getting used! People are bringing family, friends and loved ones to show how proud they are of the space. When we create a space that people want to gather in, that’s our greatest success.
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The Micro City: A New Model for Workplace Design
“A city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams.”
Close your eyes and imagine your favorite city. New York. Paris. Istanbul. These cities, or any great city, invite a stroll, inspire new ideas, and offer a romantic serendipity of experiences in art, music, and conversation. Loud, exciting, active streets and plazas are balanced with quiet parks, cafes, and libraries. Taste their food, meet new people, see their sites, feel the energy. Would you ever think of a healthcare workplace this way? For increased productivity, workplace wellness, and employee retention, you should.
We know the quality of the workplace can have an enormous effect on the health and happiness of employees. The power of brand and culture play an important part in this as well, but for the larger workplace stacked over many floors, brand can become repetitive and culture fragmented. Data shows that workers on different floors might as well be in a different building. To increase collaboration and communication, employers need to create offices that inspire movement and creativity. So why not think of the workplace as a city all its own?
Conceptual representation of how workplaces can find inspiration from destinations found in cities
Here are five design strategies borrowed from great cities that can create workplaces—whether healthcare spaces or commercial offices—that innovate and inspire.
Encourage Circulation and Movement
We know that in the modern workplace—even if you have a traditionally sedentary job like an accountant—you should be mobile. Walking is good for the mind and the metabolism. Not only is it incredibly unhealthy to stand or sit in one place all day, lack of motion is a productivity killer and a deterrent to good health.
City planning begins with streets and how people and goods move through the city. The experience navigating through the city defines what the city is. In a great city there are multiple pathways that lead to the same location, and each provides its own distinct experience.
The design of the micro-city workplace makes it easy to wander and work on different floors with different people in different settings. If the workplace doesn’t have good circulation, people will be less likely to collaborate and more susceptible to distraction. To enable movement, each floor of the workplace should have unique features and pathways easily connecting them. Larger openings linking floors spatially are essential.
When designing the new Brunswick Headquarters, a leader in the fitness, marine and billiards industries, our design team created extra-wide pathways of varying distances throughout the workplace. Walking meetings were encouraged and the design of the space itself oozed motion. Physical activity is promoted as the pathways connect “neighborhoods” and a wide array of collaborative spaces. The clearly defined pathways added the benefit of minimizing distraction by pulling circulation away from desks.
Build a Town Square and They Will Come
Every great city has town squares and plazas—open areas designed for large gatherings, festivals, and events typically surrounded by shops, restaurants and other places to congregate. Town squares are the very heart of the city.
We know great ideas happen and problems are solved more quickly when people work together. More so, research shows that productivity skyrockets when friends work on projects together compared to when they work with mere acquaintances. Although most workplaces offer a hub providing coffee and encouraging community, often, these places are used less than intended. Typically, this is the result of the lack of tools needed for meaningful collaboration through access to power and technology.
One way to create widely used destinations is to design a town square within the workplace with large and small open and enclosed meeting areas adjacent to each other. These town halls can often be several stories tall with a variety of welcoming spaces—think food, coffee, collaborative space. In these spaces, staff from different disciplines want to meet and spend time together—and based on my experience, the town square ends up being one of the greatest investments an organization can make.
Strategically placed coffee hubs line the town square in Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
In Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, large communal spaces organize the design; a three-story entrance plaza operates as a knuckle between the existing campus to the north and a new campus expansion to the west. The plaza leads to a town hall inside in the form of a four-story atrium with labs and workspaces intertwined and unassigned collaborative spaces for greater social integration. The circulation between labs and workplace operate like a gallery and collaboration zone. Within this town square environment, everyone will be aware of the work other teams are doing, and whenever something interesting happens or a celebration is planned, everyone will know where to go.
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Zoning for Variety and Choice
Cities are zoned with different areas set aside for different types of activities: commercial, retail, industrial, arts, and residential, for example. When people move from one area to another, they know where to find bustling streets, great restaurants and bars or quiet neighborhoods. People move based on what they want to do and experience; each zone has different characteristics for different activities. That’s the way workplaces should be.
The hobgoblin of workplace design is the open office. You cannot browse the web without seeing an article vilifying the open office and promoting the need for more privacy. The reality is that choice is essential to meeting the needs of a workforce with varying needs. People excel in different work settings and a one-size-fits-all approach to workplace design is ineffective. Many workers are exhilarated by energy and a social atmosphere and need only a pair of headphones to concentrate while others require absolute quiet and solitude to get work done. Well-planned workplace zones for energy or quiet (and the many other states in between) create a balanced work environment catered to work styles across the spectrum.
When we designed the new headquarters for CA Ventures, we designed it much like a collegiate campus with diagonal cuts across the environment that evoke the feeling of a campus quad while zoning the space into different functions for teaming and collaboration. Much like you’d find on a campus, we even included a green zone featuring a living wall that anchors both the reception area and main staff quad.
Let the Only Constant Be Change
If there’s one certain about cities, it’s change. Businesses recede and others emerge, restaurants open and close, homes are rebuilt, buildings are repurposed with new uses. The transformation of cities includes seasons and even the transition from day to night. They are living, breathing entities with tremendous variability, which keeps them fresh and exciting to those who call them home.
Likewise, the workplace should include variety and flexibility; studies show that creativity is increased with changes in environment. Successful workplaces inherently include floors with unique spatial and material palette experiences that offer choice to the mobile worker. Customizable lighting accentuating quiet mornings and busy middays to the casual collaboration in the early evening makes the workplace even more comfortable and effective. As cities change over time, adaptability to change is essential for the micro-city workplace. For example, shapeshifting spaces that easily transform from dedicated team rooms to quiet independent work areas allow for changes in workflow. Simpler table-based workstations allow teams to reconfigure their work settings based on mood and project needs. If something is not working, just change it.
Michigan Plaza Pop Up and Lounge
Be cosmopolitan: Mix people and purpose
Cities are at their best when people from different cultures and backgrounds mix, generating new ideas and experiences. A micro-city workplace can have the same benefits. For example, co-working spaces have become revolutionary because they give people a place to go that allows diverse talent and ideas to mix. Similarly, companies must recognize the potential of including related partners in their micro-city work environments.
Whether it be the addition of a software startup or an external marketing team, creating a culture of a comingled workplace will lessen the downside of silos and generate new ideas and experiences. Add to this mix a rotating pop-up strategy of new food or drink options, art installations, or even new fitness programs, and workplaces can present different perspectives and opportunities that motivate, stimulate, and enable productivity.
Just like great cities, the micro-city workplace creates places that are desired and even dreamt about. By pulling in ideas from city design, we can create bustling workplaces filled with spaces and strategies that make them connected, healthy, inspiring and productive.
Here’s a look at some of the sources that inspired this piece:
- “Delirious New York: a Retroactive Manifesto For Manhattan,” Rem Koolhaas, Monacelli Press, 1978
- “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs, Random House, 1961
- “Invisible Cities,” Italo Calvino; Translated by William Weaver, Secker and Warburg, 1974
- “The Image of the City,” Kevin Lynch, The MIT press, 1960
- “The New Science of Building Great Teams,” Sandy Pentland, Harvard Business Review, 2012
- “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity,” William W. Maddux, PhD, Adam D. Galinsky, PhD; Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5
- “The Organization and Architecture of Innovation,” Thomas Allen and Gunter Henn, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006