In the Tech Workplace, It's 'Neighborhoods,' Not Offices
By Mark Leibovich
The prevailing concept in office design at many local technology companies is: "Workplace as playground." Even so, the game room at the Motley Fool had to go.
That disappointed Jeb Bishop, a 34-year-old "Web geek" at the Alexandria-based online financial publication.
Each day around 2 p.m., Bishop would retire for a 20-minute session on the Nintendo 64 machine. This was sacred time, he said, "a chance to enter a whimsical escape zone and blow off steam like a frustrated adolescent." But last month, to accommodate several new hires, Motley Fool colonized the game room for new work space. "This company has to get its priorities straight," said Bishop, feigning indignation between games in the closet where the Nintendo now resides.
Technology start-up firms are famous as unconventional work spaces. All around the Beltway, firms such as Motley Fool are struggling to preserve that freewheeling feel as they mature, outgrow their original offices and move into new, larger buildings. They're having to make compromises, such as eliminating the game room, but for the most part they're preserving the cherished post-adolescent sensibility.
The result is a new office culture that values such grown-up virtues as keeping work on track and paying bills on time, while still evoking a college dorm atmosphere. Firms are creating "neighborhoods" of work spaces in open areas, replacing closed offices. They are sometimes bombarding employees with company slogans, while offering to pick up their dry cleaning on the premises. At the same time, long-established technology companies such as BTG Inc. of Fairfax, born of a strait-laced culture of military contracting, are moving toward this same goal. In their case, it means striving for a smaller, homier ethos in their buildings.
It is a dynamic evolution, taking part at tech companies partly because they specialize in things that often must be reinvented every few months.
"The beauty of technology companies is that they tend to be younger, and much less mired in the old Washington tradition of wood paneling," said Ellen Rollins, a D.C. architect who has designed offices for several area tech firms.
"If you're in a tech company, especially a start-up, culture goes a long way," said Dwight Gibbs, a then-barefoot Motley Fool engineer who goes by the title of "Chief Techie Geek." Indeed, as Washington area companies compete for a sparse population of tech workers, culture has become their recruiting and retention currency.
"We can't offer Microsoft stock options," Gibbs said, "but we can try to offer a general feeling of coolness here."
Five months ago, Motley Fool moved its operations from a cramped Victorian house to its current 10,000 square-foot offices across the street. "At first, the place looked brilliant and boring and far too efficient, like an insurance company," said Erik Rydholm, the company's 30-year-old chief operating officer.
So, to enliven the atmosphere, Motley Fool erected a basketball hoop, hung a bear riding a unicycle above the business development pod and brought in a Nintendo machine and pool and foosball tables to comprise the ill-fated game room. The company resists mightily any appearance of "going corporate," despite growing from 37 employees at the beginning of the year to 93 today.
"The old office had more character; this is more businesslike," said Dan Huddle, a 20-year-old Motley Fool Web programmer whose desk is lined with boxes of Fruity Pebbles cereal. His bosses mention the company budget more, he said. Huddle recently was asked to sign a code of conduct. And with the added space, he said, employees e-mail one another more, speak to one another less.
America Online Inc. has waged a similar battle as it has become one of the fastest-growing technology companies in the world. Barry Schuler, president of creative development at AOL Networks, who helped design its Creative Center One building at its new Dulles campus, said the company was mindful of retaining a youthful identity in its new work space.
Six hundred AOL employees work in Creative Center One, with toys scattered in most cubicles, caffeinated beverage cans pyramided on desks and the occasional silly putty sculpture. Some conference tables were constructed from recycled AOL disks, Schuler said, proof that the company is environmentally minded.
But some AOL employees have observed disturbing symptoms of maturity at the new building. People dress better at the Dulles office than they did at the former offices in Vienna, said Jason Pentecost, a senior developer at AOL, in a neutral black turtleneck. He said the company has been distributing 20 percent discount coupons to Britches, the upscale men's clothing store.
When Pentecost's team moved from a closed office environment in Vienna to Dilbertesque cubicles in Dulles, he rebelled by tying orange bicycle flags to the back of their belts.
"You could keep track of where people were by watching their flags move above the cubes," Pentecost said.
"It was a statement, man."
Recently, management decorated the campus with bright-colored placards that remind everyone of "AOL Valued Work Behaviors" ("team player," "self-management and initiative," "customer service," "innovation and adaptability," "interpersonal skills" and "integrity") and "AOL Valued Leadership Qualities" ("courage," "composure," "vision," "care for people," "team player," "technical competence" and "managerial aptitude").
"We'll joke with each other, `Ooh, you just violated customer service and integrity with that comment,' " said Pentecost, who nonetheless is diplomatic, calling the placards "cool."
AOL spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg said the company hung the signs to keep individuals focused. "When you're growing so fast, it's easy to forget what you're here for," Goldberg said. The signs "show that this company has not gotten soulless and faceless."
This is a familiar goal among more established tech firms that have moved into new buildings: fostering cozy and collegial environments to counterbalance their lifeless office park exteriors. Increasingly, such offices are characterized by communal or "podded" work spaces and common areas, with the idea of accommodating the team-based management structure preferred by many tech companies.
When BTG, the 15-year-old information systems company, moved 700 employees into its new Fairfax headquarters building in March, it eliminated the closed offices that most of its employees had before and replaced them with "neighborhoods," rows of open cubicles in homey proximity -- with, in a few cases, plastic pink flamingos stationed outside to enhance the neighborhood feel.
"When you do so many acquisitions as we have, you're acquiring cultures as you go," said Marilynn D. Bersoff, the BTG senior vice president who oversaw the move. "We want people to be able to walk down the hallways and meet their neighbors. We're trying to foster a new teamwork paradigm with our work space."
Greg Lambert, a BTG systems administrator, is ambivalent about his new neighborhood. He likes his neighbors well enough -- some of them are his friends -- but the place can get loud and crowded, he said.
Lambert inhabits Neighborhood 3D, Cubicle 3D42, with a window view of trees lining Interstate 66 and Route 50. He said he's getting used to his new work environment and enjoys its open spaces, the common areas and the views.
But as a technical worker who prizes uninterrupted stretches of time to concentrate, Lambert now endures more frequent distractions. In his old office, he could close the door. He is not prone to complaining, though.
"Neighborhood's sort of a weird word," Lambert said. "This is just a place to work."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company