What's the point in playful workspaces?

Not all offices are created equal, and there’s no shortage of lists of the best ones online - image after image of fun, frivolous workspaces full of delighted, engaged and creatively fulfilled workers. But what do these places actually achieve, besides making us all green with envy?

Airbnb HQ, Dublin

Airbnb’s Dublin headquarters were built from scratch inside an abandoned warehouse in the city’s ‘Silicon Docks’ area. In direct response to employee feedback, the office design makes it easier for staff to find each other - thanks to its simple ‘neighbourhood’ concept.

Twenty-nine carbon-copy ‘neighbourhoods’ serve as the primary workspaces. The secondary workspaces include a large atrium, kitchen area and meeting rooms, all inspired by real Airbnb listings around the world.

A huge staircase at the centre of the building links the basement and first floor, but also provides an informal working and conference area.

What does it achieve?

Free from the constraints of an existing, inflexible structure, this office design had an unusual degree of freedom to echo the company’s ‘Belong Anywhere’ workplace philosophy. So, the space is clearly aligned with the Airbnb brand and values - a strategy that builds a sense of belonging and encourages employees to be brand ambassadors.

The concept of the neighbourhoods - which occupy distinct areas but are linked visually and physically across the atrium - offers opportunities for privacy and collaboration alike. Employees are encouraged to be both individuals and community members, and everyone reaps the rewards of both styles of working.

Read: Inside the rise of the playful workspace

WeWork, Shanghai

This former opium factory was recently transformed from a derelict mansion house into a grand but relaxed co-working space with plenty of quirky, colourful details and natural light.

The Chinese flagship office for global co-working start-up WeWork artfully combines old and new - the original staircase and steel beams remain, while festive-looking lights and a retro-styled kitchen inject youth and playfulness into the mix.

The building has also been home to artists’ studios, and it reveals more than a hint of its creative past. Bold patterns, bright colours and striking artwork all add to a sense of exuberance and fun, while hand-painted, poppy-patterned wallpaper neatly references the space’s opium factory roots.

What does it achieve?

The bright and breezy design style and quirky details bring this building alive - giving it a ‘buzz’. This can be a big benefit in co-working spaces, creating a sense of energy that everyone can tap into.

A low-level hum is good for productivity, too, as it gives people the privacy and confidence to have their own conversations, without feeling that everyone else is listening to them.

The visual references to the building’s history work particularly well here, providing a unifying thread in what could otherwise be a relatively disparate co-working space.

SelgasCano, Madrid

Half above ground and half below, the tube-like studio of Spanish architecture firm SelgasCano gives employees a unique view of their forest surroundings.

At eye level is the forest floor, offering an ever-changing display of nature. Looking up, workers can see tree branches and sky through the curved glass casing of their bunker-style office. With a transparent north-facing wall and an opaque south-facing aspect, the space is flooded with light but desks do not suffer from too much glare, and there’s no need for artificial light during the day.

Ventilation is natural too; a pulley mechanism adjusts a hinged opening at one end of the building. Partly submerged in the ground and reached via a stone staircase, the office is well insulated - staying cool even during Madrid’s sweltering summers.

What does it achieve?

With little need for air-conditioning, artificial lighting or ventilation, this can certainly be considered an eco-friendly and biophilic, office design, introducing nature to counteract the stresses of the built environment.

Biophilic design consultant Oliver Heath says the approach isn’t about ‘ticking the boxes’ with employee perks: ‘Wellbeing should be integrated in the design. You can’t just say: “We’ve got a gym, so that’s wellbeing sorted”.’

Done well, it’s good news for employees: connecting with nature has been shown to reduce stress, enhance creativity and improve wellbeing. And, as pressure on urban spaces increases, workplaces are becoming less and less ‘ideal’. Depressingly, 47 per cent have no natural light, making this well-lit sanctuary even more appealing.  

Read: Is fun still fun when it's enforced?

Money.co.uk headquarters, Gloucestershire

This grade II-listed castle in Cirencester was recently treated to a £3 million renovation to create a workplace that no employee in their right mind would ever want to leave.

The much-publicised revamp was carried out in consultation with staff and in collaboration with celebrity interior designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. The headquarters of money.co.uk now boasts a Star Wars-themed cinema, an ice cave, a ‘bored room’, and even Rolling Stones-themed toilets. 

What does it achieve?

It’s been suggested that successful companies make employees happy, but researchers have steadily discredited this view. It seems that happy employees - those who feel recognised, rewarded, involved and empowered - are good for business. 

The key here, perhaps, is not simply that staff can now enjoy an in-office cinema (the boss even provides the popcorn), but that they were involved in the design and responsible for the Star Wars theme.

Inventionland, Pittsburgh

Officially the headquarters of Davison Design & Development, ‘Inventionland’ looks more like a children’s theme park than your average office.

But then, it’s not like your average business, either - the company claims that its workshops create working prototypes of more than 2,000 inventions per year. 

Employees - known as ‘creationeers’ - wear lab coats and work in a variety of fantastical sets, apparently designed to spark their creativity. These include a castle, pirate ship, tree house, race track, faux caves and even a giant robot.

What does it achieve?

Inventionland is either completely crackers or a magnet for loyal, motivated and dynamic staff. (Perhaps it’s both.) But given the reports of the company’s somewhat questionable claims, it may turn out to have been just a little too ‘creative’ for its own good.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.


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