Zappos CEO says office space should be designed like cities

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh argues office space would work better if it were organized like cities:

Tony Hsieh talks about his Internet juggernaut Zappos in the same way that urban planners talk about cities. In fact, the language is uncanny. He believes the best ideas – and the best form of productivity – come from “collisions,” from employees caroming ideas off one another in the serendipity of constant casual contact.

This is only achievable through density, with desks pushed close together in the office, or – in the case of Hsieh’s ambitious plans to leverage the new Zappos headquarters to remake downtown Las Vegas – with company employees and community members colliding into each other on the street. For the kind of “collisionable” density he’s looking for in downtown Vegas around his company, he figures the neglected area (not to be confused with the Vegas Strip) needs at least 100 residents per acre…

The typical office has about 200 or 300 square feet of space per employee. When Zappos moves into its new headquarters in the former Las Vegas City Hall in about six months, Hsieh is aiming for something closer to 100 square feet per employee. He’s also planning to decommission a skywalk into the building to force people to enter through (and collide with) the street.

In the context of offices, this kind of density bucks conventional wisdom. Most companies think employees will perform best, or at least be happiest, if as many of them as possible can have their own spacious corner office (with closable door!). This thinking has even influenced the architecture of office towers.

“That’s analogous to people wanting to live in the suburbs and live in a big house,” Hsieh says. “And what they don’t realize is that they end up trading two hours of commute time for more time with friends or relaxing or whatever.”

Interesting comparisons: corner offices are like suburbs. While Hsieh cites research, how come other companies haven’t figured this out yet? I also wonder if this is more about corporate cultures established in more traditional firms versus newer startups or high-tech firms. This reminds of a video I show in my Introduction to Sociology class to illustrate the differences between more bureaucratic structures and more flat, disc-shaped structures. In the clip from Nightline, the design firm IDEO is shown working through designing a new shopping cart. The atmosphere is both less hierarchical in terms of authority and space; people seem to be closer together and common collaborative space is important.

This conversation also lines up with talk on college campuses about interdisciplinary research and collaborative activity. Just how much can redesigned offices and common spaces contribute to this? Are we missing something major by building office buildings more like suburbs than cities?

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