How to Design the Best Workplace for Your Startup [Productivity in the Crosshairs]

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Building a company is a monumental challenge. From creating a differentiated product, securing capital, hiring talented and dedicated employees, and marketing to customers — the to-do list is truly never-ending. Given how competitive the marketplace is and how busy modern consumers are, entrepreneurs scaling their companies need to seize every opportunity and advantage they can to achieve success.

In seizing every advantage, startup leaders should consider their workplace. Failing to strategically design a workplace for your company can lead to unexpected and inherent challenges with technology, scalability, and employee retention down the line.

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To prevent this, companies should invest in up-front research to ensure they create a space calibrated to empower their employees and the specific work they do. Even without that level of strategy, there are several key principles entrepreneurs should consider as they design the workplace of their dreams.

Here’s a look at four key ways the workplace can influence success, and initial strategies entrepreneurs can focus on:

#1: Location, Location, Location

Before startup founders think about furniture and workplace strategy, they would be wise to recognize that where you locate your company can pay significant dividends. Given the nonstop demands of scaling a company and the “work anywhere, 24/7” approach that often comes with a growing business, selecting a workplace in a dynamic environment can better position companies to achieve their goals.

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The high concentration of technology firms based in New York’s DUMBO and Chelsea neighborhoods is one example of companies recognizing the value of location. By choosing to host their business in these areas, entrepreneurs may be paying higher rents than other parts of the city, but they’re also ensuring they are positioned in desirable neighborhoods.

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The DUMBO and Chelsea zip codes directly help companies attract top talent, impress clients, and benefit from easier access to a rich network of other entrepreneurs. Indirectly, the shopping, restaurants, gyms, dry cleaners, and bars that fill these neighborhoods make life easier and more accessible for employees and can often increase employee productivity as they blur the work/life continuum.

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Cornell Tech, the technology-focused campus of Cornell University opening this summer on Roosevelt Island, recognizes the value of location on both macro and micro scales. Once completed, Cornell Tech will no doubt be a hotbed for entrepreneurship, similar to DUMBO and Chelsea, but it will also allow companies to strategically locate themselves on the campus.

In the Bridge at Cornell Tech, a corporate co-location building, established tech companies and startups are located side-by-side academic researchers with the goal of bringing tech to market faster. The idea-sharing that will occur here should drive successful results given First Round Capital’s recent data that suggests founding teams with experience from marquee startup companies land pre-money valuations nearly 50% larger than their peers.

#2: Flexibility Opens Doors

One of the best ways to empower people while conserving cost and real estate in our workplaces is always designing for high functionality. Entrepreneurs should select furniture that can be moved, modified, and reshaped at any time. Similarly, spaces should be able to accommodate anything from group meetings to private work and/or impromptu brainstorm sessions.

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Functionality, and the flexibility it supports, is important for every business, but it’s especially imperative for startups. The volatility that comes with building a startup can translate to the needs to increase staff quickly, introduce new technology resources ASAP, and/or taking on clients that push your resources.

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Entrepreneurs cognizant of this reality design plans for the unknown. Adding staff isn’t just about moving desks and chairs, it’s about ensuring your people will still all have access to power, data, and communications. It’s about knowing that 3 conference rooms can be quickly demounted and converted to 10 workstations at a moment’s notice. It’s about designing workplaces that position you three steps ahead of your next challenge or opportunity to scale.

#3: Designing for Teams is Critical

Other recent data from First Round Capital suggests that startups with founding teams perform 163% stronger and secure 25% higher seed valuations than companies with one founder. This revealing data doesn’t mean company leaders should haphazardly seek out new founding partners, but it indicates the power of teams and the need to design for them to thrive in the workplace.

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When successfully executed, both formal (enclaves, team rooms) and informal (cafes, gyms) areas can spur team building, collaboration, idea-sharing, and communication to accelerate discovery. Moreover, designing for a team-based culture also helps create engaged employees, who are 59% less likely to seek employment elsewhere than their unengaged peers.

If you’re looking for proof that designing for human interaction is good business strategy, just look at some of the most successful technology companies. Apple’s new HQ will reportedly offer a massive fitness center, bars and cafes, two miles of walking and running paths for employees, and an orchard, meadow, and pond within the ring of the main building.

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On a smaller scale, Fluent, a NYC-based people-focused marketing company includes spaces that can host meetings and late work nights along with monthly team celebrations, group lunches, or yoga and boot camp classes in their fitness center. This duality that Fluent’s physical space offers enriches company culture and has helped earn the company numerous Best Place to Work honors to date.

These companies are purposely infusing these spaces in their workplace to drive teaming, collaboration, and engagement. They recognize the value that comes from embedding places where people can meet and work together to find new ideas and solve the complex challenges that every growing business faces.

#4: Promote Workplace Freedom

Many of the greatest entrepreneurship success stories started in seemingly uninspiring locations like garages and parents’ basements (see: Google, Amazon, etc.). While we often think of these spaces as dull and dark, one of the things they do very successfully is promote employee freedom. In these spaces, employees are able to close all the doors for private work, go for a walk anytime to fuel creativity, stand for phone calls, and use furniture however they see fit.

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As companies grow and move into new workplaces, they need to keep this culture of freedom and creativity front and center for continued success. Even larger, more traditional organizations are realizing the benefit of employee freedom. A global research company in the Midwest recently opened a new building where employees are assigned to “neighborhoods” – designated areas in a workplace that break down large floor plate into smaller areas defined by shared clients or projects – but not specific desks.

These neighborhoods allow people to have a home base and identity, but also provide the variety of spaces, as well as flexibility and technology to empower them to use whatever work setting they need, when they need it across the building. Infused with a strategic combination of neighborhoods, offices, open work spaces, focus rooms, and team areas, the building lets employees choose how best to use it.

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The road to success for entrepreneurs is usually full of exciting challenges, ups and downs, and dramatic shifts. It’s important that the leaders of growing companies recognize their workplace can be either be an asset or a burden along this journey, and designing the optimal workplace can do wonders for the success of their business.

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Sarah Gerber

Sarah Gerber, AIA, LEED, is the Corporate/Commercial interiors design leader in CannonDesign’s New York City office. She has a proven track record of designing successful workplaces for companies in the financial, professional services, hospitality, entertainment and civic markets that help them address challenges and seize opportunities.