Step into your of­fice

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Ul­tra-luxe workspaces at­tract top tal­ent

Com­pe­ti­tion for top tech tal­ent is stiff, but Nancy Won re­ports that a hu­man­is­tic and play­ful ap­proach to of­fice de­sign can keep a work­force en­gaged

How did Shopify be­come one of Canada’s most suc­cess­ful tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies? By let­ting its em­ploy­ees work the way they want. Nancy Won tours its Water­loo of­fice and re­ports on how de­sign drives pro­duc­tiv­ity

When I ar­rive at Shopify’s Water­loo of­fices, my first thought is that I must be in the wrong place. “There it is,” my driver says, point­ing at a mon­strous, yel­low brick build­ing with rick­ety shut­ters and bleak pen­i­ten­tiary vibes. This can’t be right. Aren’t tech com­pa­nies sup­posed to have ul­tra modern of­fices with flashy ar­chi­tec­ture and fun slides? And isn’t this Shopify – the crown jewel of Cana­dian tech? I’d heard about their glo­ri­ous Ot­tawa and Toronto of­fices, with log cabin meet­ing rooms and ship­ping con­tainer-in­spired walls, re­spec­tively, but con­fronted with this tepid yel­low fa­cade I won­der if Water­loo is the runt of the lit­ter.

As soon as I walk through the door, how­ever, my jaw drops. In an homage to its for­mer life as a Sea­gram whisky dis­tillery, the of­fice’s am­ber wood atrium is stacked with an­tique bar­rels all the way up to the five-storeys-high rafters, and com­mu­nal ta­bles stretch out across the monas­tic-mess-hall-meet­sroyal-cel­lar-es­que space. It’s breath­tak­ing. I can’t help my­self: I pull out my phone and start snap­ping pic­tures like a shame­less tourist.

Even in a tech space pop­u­lated by in­no­va­tive com­pa­nies and play­ground-like in­te­ri­ors, Shopify’s ap­proach to of­fice de­sign sets it apart from the crowd. The com­pany is not in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing fancy-look­ing en­vi­ron­ments for the sake of aes­thet­ics. Its main ob­jec­tive is to en­gi­neer spa­ces that ac­tu­ally sup­port the peo­ple work­ing in them.

Shopify’s Water­loo of­fice, which opened in June 2016 and is cur­rently un­der­go­ing an ex­pan­sion, is the new­est of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s five lo­ca­tions. And de­spite be­ing a non-client-fac­ing out­post in a tech-y col­lege town, this is ar­guably its most im­pres­sive ad­dress. Lo­cated in a 19th-cen­tury dis­tillery, this build­ing is where Shopify Plus, the di­vi­sion that serves high-growth, high-vol­ume clients (think Nes­tle, Gen­eral Elec­tric and Red Bull, as well as vi­ral mil­len­nial brands like Drake’s OVO and Kylie Jen­ner’s Kylie Cos­met­ics), is based. The 40,000-square-foot space is home to 250 em­ploy­ees which, by tra­di­tional of­fice stan­dards, means there is a lot of un­op­ti­mized, un­oc­cu­pied space. By Shopify stan­dards, how­ever, it’s cramped. “We’ve ac­tu­ally out­grown this space,” says Loren Pad­dle­ford, vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager of Shopify Plus. “We have an­other build­ing un­der con­struc­tion right now 70 me­tres away.”

Ev­ery Shopify of­fice has the same ba­sic struc­ture: large open ar­eas and com­mu­nal spa­ces with meet­ing rooms and team pods branch­ing out from there. I’m taken on a tour of the Water­loo of­fice, start­ing in the town hall area (the epic bar­rel cel­lar that greeted me on ar­rival), which is where cor­po­rate an­nounce­ments are made, panel dis­cus­sions take place and also where peo­ple sit down for lunch. (Lunch, by the way, is catered ev­ery day at no cost to em­ploy­ees.) Down the hall is a cozy cafe, fully stocked with pre­mium cof­fee and bot­tom­less snacks. The bar up­stairs has beer on tap, video game con­soles and ping-pong ta­bles.

Half­way through the tour I spot a 20-some­thing guy in a plaid shirt and thick-rimmed glasses kick­ing back on a sofa with a stick­ered-up lap­top and a bag of Dori­tos. This may not be what most em­ploy­ers would say a pro­duc­tive worker looks like, but for Pad­dle­ford it’s proof that the space is work­ing. “What we’re try­ing to do is create an en­vi­ron­ment that in­spires peo­ple to do their best work,” he says. “But not ev­ery­one’s the same. I like my stand­ing desk, but not ev­ery­one likes stand­ing desks. Or sit­ting desks. Not ev­ery­one likes desks! Some peo­ple want to work in lounge chairs. Some peo­ple want to work on couches. Some peo­ple like to work in a bar. What we’re do­ing is al­low­ing peo­ple to move around and work where they feel most ef­fec­tive.”

The open spa­ces also sup­port the kind of work cul­ture Shopify en­cour­ages. Namely one where col­lab­o­ra­tion, co­op­er­a­tion and cre­ativ­ity can spark in un­ex­pected ways be­tween the most un­likely peo­ple. “The of­fice space just serves to am­plify what Shopify is all about in terms of the cross-func­tional talk­ing that’s con­stantly go­ing on,” says Pra­neethi Ko­mat-Reddy, a mer­chant suc­cess man­ager who has been with the com­pany since April 2016. “Open spa­ces re­ally help to open up your mind­set. None of the pods have doors, so just me­taphor­i­cally, it’s like, never close your mind to any­thing. I know I can just walk into any pod and say, ‘Hey guys, I have an idea I want to run past you,’ and we’ll have a spon­ta­neous meet­ing right there.”

An­other ben­e­fit of open work en­vi­ron­ments is the mo­ti­va­tion de­rived from see­ing others work­ing to­wards the same goal. “It’s not like in a more tra­di­tional of­fice with cu­bi­cles where you don’t know a project is even hap­pen­ing un­til it’s done,” says Ko­mat-Reddy. “Peo­ple write on walls here, they write on win­dows, you see sales guys run­ning around all the time, like sprint­ing. Ev­ery­one’s mov­ing all the time and I think that kind of fu­els your en­ergy, and pushes you to hus­tle a lit­tle bit more.”

That kind of trans­parency, col­lab­o­ra­tion and mo­ti­va­tion doesn’t hap­pen by ac­ci­dent. “I think an of­fice space is a re­flec­tion of the com­pany’s con­cerns and val­ues,” says Jonathan Sabine, co-founder of MSDS Stu­dio, a Toronto-based de­sign firm, whose clients include de­vel­oper TAZ De­sign Build, pub­lisher House of Anansi, cre­ative agency Com­mon Good, tech start-up TWG, and the Toronto of­fice of Shopify. “A thought­fully de­signed space can help to foster com­pany val­ues, and im­ply cer­tain be­hav­iours, at­ti­tudes and in­ter­ac­tions be­tween em­ploy­ees.”

Shopify’s Toronto space is known for its in­ten­tion­ally maze-like floor plan. “We love the idea of an en­vi­ron­ment hav­ing a sense of dis­cov­ery and ex­plo­ration,” says Jes­sica Nakan­ishi, co-founder of MSDS. “It’s re­ally about in­cor­po­rat­ing el­e­ments of fun, spark­ing cu­rios­ity and cre­at­ing mo­ments that I think, con­sciously or un­con­sciously, be­come very im­por­tant to the cre­ative process.”

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween pro­duc­tiv­ity and of­fice space may be dif­fi­cult to mea­sure but it’s hard to imag­ine that a space a per­son spends all day in doesn’t prime him or her for bet­ter or for worse. One thing that can be mea­sured, how­ever, is hap­pi­ness. “There are peo­ple here all the time,” says Pad­dle­ford.

“I’ll come in on a Satur­day be­cause I for­got some­thing, and there will be peo­ple here just hang­ing out. You know you’re do­ing some­thing right when peo­ple show up on week­ends to hang out in the of­fice.”

This is no small achieve­ment con­sid­er­ing how com­pet­i­tive tech re­cruit­ment is in to­day’s mar­ket. “There’s an arms race in the tech in­dus­try right now for re­tain­ing the best tal­ent, and the phys­i­cal space is a huge part of that,” says Sabine. “We’ve ac­tu­ally had a few com­pa­nies tell us that they need to get bet­ter em­ploy­ees, but they’re hav­ing trou­ble tak­ing them away from the places like Shopify.”

And this is pre­cisely the point. “If, as a com­pany, you’re not think­ing about of­fice de­sign and in­ten­tion­ally giv­ing peo­ple spa­ces that are con­ducive to their work­ing style, they’re gonna leave and we can’t af­ford that,” says Pad­dle­ford. “I think the fun­da­men­tal thing that sep­a­rates us from other busi­nesses is that we see the peo­ple who work here as hu­mans, they’re not just line items. If you’re go­ing to op­ti­mize for line items, yeah cu­bi­cle heaven, man. But if you’re go­ing op­ti­mize for how hu­mans do their best work, there is no other op­tion.”


The of­fices of e-com­merce com­pany Shopify in (clock­wise from top left) Water­loo, Ot­tawa, Mon­treal and Toronto adopt their own de­sign iden­ti­ties – and mul­ti­ple ways for em­ploy­ees to work.


OF­FICE SPACE The de­sign of Shopify’s Water­loo out­post (above pho­tos), draws in­spi­ra­tion from the build­ing’s for­mer life as a Sea­gram whisky plant; an­tique bar­rels reach all the way up to the rafters and dis­till­ing equip­ment stands along­side more modern work­place ne­ces­si­ties such as table ten­nis. The online com­pany’s other three lo­ca­tions, in Ot­tawa (right), Toronto (bot­tom right) and Mon­treal (be­low) each boast their own unique iden­ti­ties.

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