National Post

Young & Restless


- Suzanne Wintrob

As director of real estate management at Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, Nina Gazzola gets to match startups with the perfect place to thrive. The 1.5- million- sq.- ft. innovation hub comprises private offices and common workspaces for entreprene­urs big and small, giving Gazzola a window into their frenzied lives.

“Their world is fast- paced and they’re focused on growing their business, so they want a space that is going to help them attract talent, that’s going to be inspiring and that’s going to be easy to be up and running instantly,” she says of the psychology behind office design.

Sure, an Ikea- furnished basement or a garage might be the ideal place for a small team. But once employee count hits double digits, yelling to a co- worker across the room won’t cut it. It warrants a move to a well- designed office offering the biggest bang for a cost-conscious founder’s buck. It’s not a reward, but a necessity that empowers employees to be productive and happy.

Since many startups today are driven by millennial­s, Gazzola has noticed several commonalit­ies as they reach a certain size. They crave “modern, funky, eclectic spaces that are still functional and where technology is supreme.” They’re not a nine- to- five bunch so they expect 24/7 access to the office and fast wireless Internet with no hiccups. They make no distinctio­n between home and office so need flexible spaces to relax and have fun without distractin­g them from their work. And they’ll put as much thought into the kitchen café as their parents did on a photocopie­r.

That’s what happened at digital marketing agency Olson Canada Inc. when its workforce grew quickly foll owing an acquisitio­n. In a nod to its 90 young employees ( average age 29), Toronto’s Bartlett & Associates Ltd. turned a new 20,000-sq.ft. space into a bright and flexible open- plan concept where teams sit together at six- foot workstatio­ns, directors’ offices have glass doors to encourage i nteraction, and writing on whiteboard­s, walls and windows gets creative juices flowing. Streaml i ned f ur ni t ur e i nf us e s energy throughout the reception area, main pitch room and well- stocked café with beer tap, all of which can be combined for meetings and socializin­g.

With people spending so much time together, culture and branding — in art, inspiratio­nal sayings or cool hues — play into a startup’s psyche. As Lynn Ferron, vicepresid­ent, practice leader (interiors) at HOK Ottawa, puts it: “They need colour, branding and comfort to produce a desirable space. Since they may be new, they understand the value of being memorable and want their brand and culture to be heavily reflected in their space. It’s important to uncover and reflect their cultural DNA.”

ICF Olson’s playful culture is evident. Client logos made of Lego in the modern lobby make clients feel like participan­ts in the space. A brick accent wall pays tribute to the firm’s annual Brickie staff awards. Employees, who zip around the office on scooters, chose boardroom names after their favourite historical innovators, and compete in friendly challenges to create new concepts using VR headsets and video game consoles.

Gazzola urges startups seeking new digs to think long- term before signing a lease. Make sure the space has good bones, feels open and airy and has enough places for privacy. But above all else, make sure there’s room to grow.

“In the startup world, your world changes very quickly so your office of 10 often needs to be reconfigur­ed to accommodat­e an office of 15 or 20 in the same space within a couple of months,” she says. “So if you design your space to be ready to move in that way — with flexible furniture choices and a more open concept — it will help you in the long run.”

Mike Brown, president of ICF Olson’s Canadian subsidiary, is convinced that the firm’s invigorati­ng space has catapulted its growth.

“When you have that moment where you can plant a real flag,” he advises startups considerin­g a move, “spend the time touring other offices…. Dig in and really listen to how things work. And make sure your people are part of the decision- making. Where you are, when you need things, the traditions that you try to embrace become part of your l i ving environmen­t. They’re better when they come from the ground up than the top down.”


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 ?? TYLER ANDERSON / NATIONAL POST ?? Mike Brown is president of ICF Olson’s Canadian subsidiary, where a playful culture sees employees zip around on scooters. The invigorati­ng space propels growth, he says.
TYLER ANDERSON / NATIONAL POST Mike Brown is president of ICF Olson’s Canadian subsidiary, where a playful culture sees employees zip around on scooters. The invigorati­ng space propels growth, he says.

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