Recently 37signals opened their new office. It's beautiful and functional... [but] I now believe Zappos’ chaotic and messy offices are much more effective at promoting happiness and innovation. - Ryan Carson, Think Vitamin blog post
This was timely for me; in November I was in Chicago and was invited to spend the day at the 37signals office. Jason Fried gave me a tour, I spent time hanging out with the team, and I had the opportunity to do some of my own work in the office.
The first thing I noticed wasn't the aesthetic of the office, it was the people. Jason greeted me at the door. Throughout my visit, I found him, David Heinemeier Hansson, and the rest of the folks at 37signals personable and down-to earth.
Let's move on to the office itself: the 37signals workplace feels like a library, an art gallery, and a tea shop.
In college, if I really needed to get some work done, I would escape to the library. The library was quiet and free of distractions: just me and my work. The 37signals office is like a library in that it's quiet. It's really quiet. I was working in one of the glass meeting rooms, and was joined by Michael Berger who sat down and started answering support emails. The two of us sat, in quiet, for hours without a single interruption. I realized what an undisturbed work environment does for the mind: your anxiety goes down, because your brain can trust that it's not going to be yanked off it's current task. There's a great freedom in having a complete thought, writing a full paragraph, and finishing a task.
Art galleries are inspirational places. They inspire creativity and ideas. In an art gallery you might reflect on your life, your work and your relationships. I found the 37signals space engendered a similar feeling. The materials used include stacked felt for walls, full glass walls and doors, chalkboards, and wood floors. There are large windows that let in lots of natural light. Sketches and murals cover the chalkboard walls. An impressive library of books on design and art greet you as you walk into the office.
I have a confession: I broke the silence at 37signals. But I didn't get in trouble: I was in the kitchen! For those of you who envisioned the 37signals workspace as a repressive dungeon where the peons are forbidden to utter a sound, I have news for you: people do speak with each other. Most of this socialization happens in their enormous kitchen. "Tea breaks" are common: the selection of tea is impressive, and there is usually someone to share a cup with. I also had people introduce themselves throughout the day; Jamie Dihiansan burst into the meeting room I was sitting in, just to say hello.
An office isn't what makes a great company, great. However, after visiting the 37signals office in Chicago, I think creating a healthy work environment can produce better work. Having a space that allows people to focus, inspires creativity, and foster good relationships is a good way to accomplish this. I think the Signals have nailed it.
37signals HQ tour, a set on Flickr.