Dingy Basements and Cluttered Garages. How Startup Spaces Inspire Office Design.

The 'unintentional design' of today's makeshift startup spaces might inspire innovation at your organization, too.

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By Meg Osman

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Leaders of startup and emerging companies looking to rethink their office space might want to take a few cues from the aging, cluttered garages they drive by each day on the way to work.

Related: 5 Influences on Design for the Modern Workplace

That may sound counterintuitive, but several of the most innovative companies out there were founded in some of the world's least innovative places. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs built Apple's first computers in a small garage in Cupertino, California. Kevin Plank launched Under Armour from the basement of his grandmother's townhouse. Jeff Bezos founded Amazon from his garage in Bellevue, Washington -- a garage heated by a potbellied stove -- and negotiated contracts at a local Barnes & Noble.

By today's standards, it's safe to say that none of these spaces was intentionally designed to increase innovation and creativity, yet somehow they became the perfect breeding ground for ideas that went on to change the world.

Here are four ways that the "unintentional design" of many of today's makeshift startup spaces might actually inspire innovation at your organization.

1. Flexibility of choice is a must.

One of the more appealing aspects of these garages and basements is that there are no pre-determined rules about how they should be used. The bold thinkers at the core of these companies are able to work as they see fit -- they can stand for phone calls, sprawl out on a couch to decompress, hold meetings outside or close all the doors for focused work when they're really motivated by a new idea.

The flexibility and freedom these workplaces afford maximizes creativity simply because there are no set rules or space parameters to work within.

Historically, these ideals haven't been widely translated to the design of corporate workplaces, since they've been dismissed in favor of efficiency and standardization. Not surprisingly, however, established companies are beginning to reverse this trend by specially creating spaces to encourage entrepreneurial and creative spirits.

A leading educational technology company we recently worked with introduced 10 different types of settings per floor for employees to choose from that uniquely encourage communication, collaboration and employee experience. This variety of workspace allows employees to find the areas where they're most comfortable performing certain types of work. The variety further engrains freedom and flexibility in a company's culture.

2. Status should not be about real estate.

When you start a business in a garage, discussions about who gets access to the sagging sofa in the corner or the mini fridge just don't happen. There is no preferred access to WiFi, coffee or daylight. Now, contrast that reality with today's corporate workplaces where executives are often afforded sprawling office spaces and access to the best conference rooms and amenities. This dated, "ivory tower" approach can unintentionally discourage employee engagement and stifle the creative process.

Upon the relocation of CannonDesign's Chicago office in 2012, we introduced a workplace solution that moved 99 percent of our staff, regardless of rank or title, to open offices and provided necessary teaming and collaboration spaces throughout. This new strategy, based on survey data we collected, increased employee satisfaction by 40 percent and improved two factors specifically: performance related to employee concentration and employees' ability to meet face to face and hold phone conversations.

Related: Designing a Better Office Space

No matter where you look at our company, you'll see groups of people representing all disciplines and experience levels throwing ideas back and forth free of hierarchical barriers.

3. Workplaces aren't just for work.

Our best ideas often come to us while we're jogging in the morning, playing pool with colleagues or having a drink with friends. Much like a home office where your "office" and bedroom are literally a few steps from each other, the lines between work and life are fantastically blurred and a continual opportunity for casual innovation exists.

The workplaces described here welcome a mix of personal and professional interaction, much more than do offices that set employees in cubicles and ask them to innovate between the hours of 9 and 5.

Infusing an office with social spaces like cafes, gyms, outdoor terraces or game rooms lets employees unwind, connect and discover new ideas when they least expect them. Even offering moderate access to alcohol (something you'll often find in startup garages!) can improve culture and increase creativity.

An insurance company we recently worked with installed a fully-stocked bar in its new office space to help employees relax, and to drive camaraderie. Such social spaces can increase energy and idea-sharing in the office and help prevent office fatigue, that all-too familiar moment when an employee's eyes begin to glaze over after he or she has spent a long day sitting at a desk.

4. Don't be afraid to make things hackable.

Another ideal aspect of start-up garages is that they can change day to day. They can be arranged to accommodate research one day, and a meeting of minds the next. In addition, couches and chairs can be reorganized to provide private space, when necessary. Companies should seek out workplaces that capture this "anything goes" mentality and incorporate flexible elements, like reconfigurable walls, hacker rooms, stand-up workstations and flexible seating options. These options afford room for your company to grow, change and evolve.

Another cool idea -- to incorporate spaces where walls, desks and tables can be written on -- provides opportunities to brainstorm on the spot. This function also mimics that iconic startup garage where every piece of paper, napkin or cereal box gets turned into a sketch pad for ideas for the future that accelerate your employees' creative engines.

Not that established companies are going to begin leasing garages and basements any time soon. But they would be wise to learn from the unintentional design that these somewhat "accidently creative" startup spaces provide. Who knows; one of the ideas that gets generated could provide the path to innovation, fame and fortune.

Related: Surprising Ways to Create an Inspiring Workspace

Meg Osman

Executive Director at CannonDesign

Meg Osman is the executive director of CannonDesign’s global corporate/commercial practice, focused on working with startup and emerging companies to implement real estate and workplace strategies that turn challenges into opportunities for growth and success.

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