Thursday, 9 July 2015

The office is the new social network

It's not just the idea that has to be innovative, the space in which it's built has to be too. Startups are slowly disrupting traditional office spaces, doing away with swivel chairs and glass partitions and settling for wooden benches and whiteboard tabletops.

The street leading to the office is like any other in south Delhi's grungy yet upscale neighbourhood of Hauz Khas. Cramped alleys cut through pockets of designer stores, where men huddle together discussing Arvind Kejriwal's monthly electricity bills, slender women in kitsch clothing window shop, and very fat yet hungry stray dogs keep an eye on it all.

Located strategically between graffiti-spattered walls and an ancient lake, the building housing the office looks ordinary enough. But push open the door on the fourth floor and's new direction becomes clear. A chic wooden deck with cosy seating spaces leads into a concealed work space with exposed overhead pipes and designer chairs. From every angle in the office, the lake is visible, sometimes just as a reflection on the glass walls. "Startups are changing the way people work in India. We don't call these new offices work spaces, we call them living spaces," says Suvonil Chatterjee, chief design officer,

Research by Carnegie Mellon reveals that buildings can impact overall performance and productivity. "It all started with the Google offices. Google builds highly aspirational work spaces that help attract and retain talent. The average age of talent in India is not only coming down, it's shrinking as well. Great work spaces can be key differentiators. You need to approach work space design differently now. A furniture or seating oriented app roach doesn't work. A people-centric approach does," says Abhigyan Neogi, founder of Chromed Design Studio, the agency which designed and built the 3,000 sqft studio. Neogi, has recently designed work spaces for several startups, including that of Paytm and Uber. Currently, he is overhauling's 1-lakh sqft Mumbai office.

Beanbags on the floor and swings on the verandah are passe. At the office of fashion brand Myntra on Hosur Road in Bengaluru, you could be forgiven for thinking you walked out of the lift and onto a high street. Faux storefronts with mannequins, racks of clothes, a cafe (dispensing real coffee), an ever blue sky with clouds and even wooden benches line the reception and route to the conference rooms that are named after famous designers.

"We wanted to do away with old hierarchies to make people more approachable," says Sreenivas Reddy, who insists on being called the VP and head of real estate and workplace at online fashion marketplace Myntra rather than an 'admin'.

The relaxed approach to the space extends to HR policy and office culture as well. At mobile advertising network InMobi, staff no longer need to swipe in and out. "Our work culture is one of freedom and collaboration," says Rebecca D'Leema, head of commerce advertising at InMobi. The company hired DWP, an architecture and design agency that designed a Google office, to revamp its headquarters in Bengaluru. Staff were involved in the designing of the office and were asked to paint the walls with graffiti. Along with upping motivation, the design revamp has enabled InMobi to increase productivity by around 80%, D'Leema says.

Similarly, Gurgaon-based restaurant search startup Zomato is betting big on its sprightly work space design to pay dividends when it comes to employee satisfaction. "We understand talent is not motivated by monetary incentives alone but also requires a thriving work space," says a Zomato spokesperson. The company's office boasts of spacious and flexible work spaces interrupted by bright red English telephone booths. The guru of innovative work spaces, Google, which has offices in locations as diverse as a garage in Menlo Park and a farmhouse in Denmark, is taking the concept to the next level. Instead of constructing immovable concrete buildings, it is creating lightweight block-like structures that can be moved around easily.

"Large translucent canopies will cover each site, controlling climate inside yet letting in light and air. With trees, landscaping, cafes and bike paths weaving through these structures, we aim to blur the distinction between our buildings and nature," the company wrote on its blog earlier this year.

So, are new-age work spaces representative of the startup work culture? Definitely, says Myntra's Reddy. "Unassigned work spaces not only increase utilization but also bring down the cost of real estate," he says.

Ranjeet Ramakrishnan, founder of design agency Okdone, who worked with Reddy for eight months to create Myntra's office, has now turned his attention to Flipkart's premises. "Informal work culture, collaborative workplaces, teamwork and open spaces this is the future," Reddy says. "It's time we loosen up a little."

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