As the start-ups have become grown-ups they have sought to retain the qualities that led to their success, while supporting their need for growth. This has driven the trend to find unconventional real estate solutions to suit their needs. Technology companies are often born out of an anti-conforming attitude: think of disruptor companies who are rewriting the rules such as Uber or Google leaving governments struggling to update regulations and taxation laws. This same “disruptive” attitude is often applied to both their approach to workplace and its place in the wider city.
We all know the clichés about tech companies - they prefer warehouse spaces, 24-hour chefs, foosball tables and bean bags over boardroom tables– but is this truism representative of all tech businesses? How do they influence the wider urban fabric around them? What happens when that tech business is absorbed into a broader business? There are two broad approaches we see technology companies applying to their location and their premises.
The neighbourhood becomes the office
With a focus on culture and individuality, technology businesses are attracted to unconventional workspaces. Although seeing the workplace as a major contributor to nurturing their business and importantly, attracting highly sought after staff, they are not simply seeking the same spaces as is being vacated by financial companies. Repurposed industrial complexes such as the Australian Technology Park at Eveleigh, Sydney, provide the type of flexible, character spaces that suits their needs. When tech companies do move into established commercial precincts, they rip up the marble floors and ceiling grids and inject their own character.
The workplace vision of tech companies can be anything but technological, preferring spaces that mirror their start up beginnings, and give the “best” spaces to their staff rather than a traditional client facing front of house. They also want to create a strong team culture, while recognising the strong need for focused individual work that leads to truly innovative outcomes.
Increasingly, tech workers see themselves as working in a neighbourhood rather than a building, and the character of the neighbourhood must also “fit” with the culture of the business. Where once tech companies sought visionary technology utopias, today they are more likely to want a white collar factory with an industrial aesthetic in the heart of the city. In place of a Utopian vision, often in natural settings with bold ‘wow’ factor designs, today’s technology company is seeking authentic urban experiences in the city, where people can connect with each other and city life. As like attracts like, this has led to the development of “tech hubs”. This clustering effect is occurring on both a local and global scale.
Clustering and the creation of tech-ecosystems are following a familiar pattern on a global scale, whereby tech companies, incubators and start-ups seek out shared workspace in old buildings and reinhabit city laneways in the pursuit of work and play. Ecosystems require flexible workspaces from start-up space to step-up space, an aggregation of goods and services tailored to tech companies and robust public transport networks. In an industry where one would assume you could work anywhere, the need to plug into the ecosystem of support services, a rich employment pool and access to venture funding has rather created clusters of creative growth not only in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, but also Boston, due to the proximity to MIT and Austin, Texas, the headquarters of Dell.
These companies rely on clusters of like-minded individuals co-working on start-ups, new apps, disruptors, etc. Many companies encourage their staff to work on their own innovations while at work, and are happy to spawn new companies for new products. The idea of open source is completely contrary to the corporate security we see from large multi-nationals. Google, for instance, is constantly innovating and diversifying with new companies such as Google Earth and Gmail.
When working from anywhere is possible, the neighbourhood becomes the office. Public space and active street life, therefore, assume greater importance and are highly valued over the remote suburban tech hub. Where once Silicon Valley was the heartland of the tech industry, it is now more likely to be Silicon Alley in Lower Manhattan, Block 71 in Singapore or Silicon Roundabout in London - the third largest tech startup area after San Francisco and New York. New buildings such as Allies & Morrison’s White Collar Factory, London, seek to emulate this anti-conformist attitude and industrial aesthetic.
Iconic and isolated
On the other hand, as tech companies mature, there is a trend towards recreating that ecosystem within their own controlled environment. Many influential organisations from Apple to Yahoo to Bell Labs and MIT have realised that the physical environment can purposefully create opportunities for collaboration and have sought to develop self-contained environments that achieve this desired outcome. Think of Marrisa Mayer’s famous ban on working from home when she was appointed CEO of Yahoo. and Steve Jobs obsessing over ways to encourage chance encounters in the design of Pixar’s headquarters in the 1990s. Further back, MIT’s notable Building 20 had (accidentally) demonstrated the same principles since the 1940s.
Some of the biggest tech companies in the world are currently constructing new headquarters that seek to capture their unique culture, amplify it and drive them to ever greater heights. Facebook has just completed a new complex by Frank Gehry, Apple is working with Norman Foster and Google with BIG and Heatherwick. These buildings can be seen as artificially recreating the organic complexity of inner city sites their smaller counter parts prefer.
In a similar vein is the Cornell Tech Campus proposed for Roosevelt Island in New York, where starchitects such as Weiss Manfredi have proposed structurally daring designs within an SOM masterplan on an island surrounded by landscape.
So what does it mean for technology teams within broader businesses?
Most businesses now have significant tech teams within their broader operations. Australia’s major banks have declared that they increasingly see themselves as technology businesses as much as financial institutions. With the raised visibility of the culture and work flow of tech teams within more diverse businesses, there is increased realisation of the benefits that approach can bring to the wider organisation. Major corporations such as NAB and GPT are now actively introducing incubators and co-working spaces into their physical environments. This influences the built form of their workspaces, these spaces require flexibility for rapid reconfiguration, and have often located close to public spaces, encouraging a village like atmosphere within a more traditional corporate environment.
Major companies will rewrite the workplace logic of Sydney
As technology has become an indispensable part of how we do business, so it becomes an influential force on our built environment. This is driven both by the way tech companies inhabit the city, and by the way their products influence our behaviour. In Australia and NSW, we have governments who are seeking to grow this knowledge economy and deliver broader benefits to wider community. Nowhere is this more evident in major urban regeneration projects both underway and anticipated, such as the tram sheds in Australian Technology Park and the White Bay Power Station.
So what will it mean for workplaces in the future? I believe we will see a greater focus on place making, and creating environments with public space and active street life. Workplaces will be more about connective spaces, activation and authenticity, with less interest in the metrics that used to be the measure of good space.