IT Workspaces Are Growing Up

In effort to recruit ‘serious’ talent, tech companies are trading play spaces for more adult digs

Aliah D. Wright By Aliah D. Wright April 17, 2018

Goodbye, pingpong tables, beanbag chairs and beer taps. Hello, long work tables, swivel chairs and fruit-infused water.

Today's technology workplaces have put on a suit and tie.

Play areas once designed to recruit tech talent fresh from college are no longer in vogue. Tasteful furniture is in demand. So are team collaboration spaces and privacy rooms for quick phone calls and individual contemplation.

Just like modern offices in most other industries.

The high cost of real estate and the desire to maximize space is behind the change. Technology companies have also abandoned designs that emphasized frat-house fun to appeal to a more diverse talent pool. Office layouts now accentuate work/life balance, professionalism and wellness. Some companies say it's more important to be closer to transportation hubs to entice talent.

Wendy DeCamposAt Palm Beach, Fla.-based digital transformation agency Levatas, employee experience and human resources lead Wendy DeCampos said the 11-year-old company is designing its new offices to offer flexible workspaces, standing desks and ergonomic chairs.

"We have a pingpong table and an Xbox," she chuckled. "But I've seen we've gotten away from the Xbox and, in some ways, we're growing up."

For years, technology offices featured adult-sized slides, ball pits, bunk beds, cubicles fashioned like teacups and other odd décor.

Such spaces were designed to give new workers the impression that the office was an extension of their college dorms and that everything they needed could be found at work—like activities that highlighted play, free food, concierge services and nap rooms.

Designers say employers now want to show new recruits that the office is a space for serious work.

"For hiring and recruiting talent, there's much more of an interest now in what they actually can accomplish and who they're going to work with than how cool the office looks," said Matt Lock, managing director at Unispace, a global design firm with offices around the world, speaking in an interview with the Boston Globe.

When Work Is Fun, Why Leave?

Years ago, when tech startups were trying to attract mostly white male workers in their 20s, free food and foosball tables were a way "to get college-age programmers to feel more attracted to a job at a startup that didn't offer much in the way of job security or even competitive pay compared to more established, conservative outfits," said Trevor Longino, chief marketing officer at Unito, a startup in Montreal. His small startup helps teams collaborate better by syncing to-do lists from different project management apps.

He told SHRM Online that "after a while … as startups scaled and hired the kinds of managers who focused more on optimizing talent instead of attracting it, they realized that if you keep people at their desks longer, you'll get more work out of them." He added that "as the cost of talent grows in competitive markets like [Silicon] Valley, providing food [was] a super cheap way to optimize return on investment on headcount."

Longino noted that the average Silicon Valley developer earns at least $50 an hour. For those companies that are still offering such incentives, "catered lunches are a quarter of that cost or less, foosball tables and pinball arcades are a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of operating costs for the capacity to maybe encourage someone to hang around the office for an extra hour or two."

Calling it "murky ground," Kenneth Papa, HubSpot facilities director, told the Globe that 10 years ago, if you were working in technology, playground-offices sent what the paper called "a fairly obvious message to workers: You were expected to be constantly on the job."

Papa said: "It's very much a gray area where you build something to get people to never want to leave versus building something that people want, could use and will give them a better quality of life."

While Hubspot still has its nap room and its engineers enjoy table tennis, it also has a maternity suite and its candy dispensers are filled with granola and nuts. 

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Tech companies have now discovered that "the top-most talent in our industry wants to be perceived and treated as true business professionals, not just 'the IT guy,' " said Taylor Toce, CEO of Velo IT Group. The managed IT services provider is headquartered in Dallas.

This June, "we are moving to a new office, primarily as a tool to help us recruit new industry-leading talent," Toce told SHRM Online.

"This new office is bright and open; but you won't find video games, pingpong tables or a soda fountain. We have found these items do not contribute to a professional work environment—but rather distract from the success of production that the true professional desires."

In their report, Innovation Spaces: The New Design of Work, Julie Wagner and Dan Watch wrote for the research group the Brookings Institution and Project for Public Spaces last year that while "the conventional wisdom is that workplaces with collaborative, informal spaces are now common place, a more accurate picture is that most people work in traditional, hierarchical offices that emphasize individual work."

Wagner and Watch also point out that "many innovation spaces have evolved from the preoccupation of style to be 'slick or cool' to the singular ambition of helping people flourish."

That also means recognizing that potential employees aren't taking jobs because they want to work in a funhouse.

"Top-tier professionals come to Velo not for pingpong, but … to be part of a team that is really making a positive impact every day on the workplaces of our clients," Toce said. They're also coming for benefits "like unlimited PTO [paid time off] or our certification program for IT engineers, which pays for team members to pursue certifications and technical advancement at little to no cost to the individual."

Longino added: "We tell people what makes Unito special are the flexible work hours (most of us have kids, we know what it's like); a group benefits plan; convenient downtown location; free coffee, tea, beer, and fruit-infused water; gorgeous office space with common areas and a kitchen; and $1,000 annual wellness spending budget for self-improvement purposes," he said. The company also provides free language classes.

For them, "it's never been about the pingpong culture. Probably as part of that, the company is nearly 50 percent women," Longino said.

Meanwhile at Levatas, "we find that some people work really well in open spaces and some people need privacy."

Hence smaller meeting rooms and phone booths. She said it has made a difference in recruiting and retaining employees.

"I think they really welcome it." 

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