“People who have been working here for six months still smile as they walk in,” says Cristina Bragana, marketing manager of Uniplaces, of the company’s new headquarters in the heart of Lisbon. “All false modesty aside, it’s probably the coolest office in town and that’s something that we’re all very proud of. It’s something that gives us a little boost when we’re coming to work.”
From the get-go, this global student housing booking start-up never considered an old-fashioned desk-bound office situation. Instead, Uniplaces wanted a base that encapsulated the youthfulness of the brand and gave Uniplacers a workplace that enabled easy communication and transparency. Enter architecture firm Paralelo Zero, whose creative team worked with Uniplaces’ brief to create a space that showcases brilliant aesthetics, functionality and a good hit of fun.
And quite possibly the best part? A marvellous suspended net structure strewn above people’s heads across the office, creating a lower false ceiling and a place where staff can rest, work or hang out.
“The nets were brought to the table by Paralelo Zero. They were challenged to come up with something that was really different. What they did was take the classic architecture of the Rossio Railway Station [where the office is located], a tribute to the golden days of Portuguese discovery, as the starting step for a new idea. The nets, with all their maritime associations, were perfect – here they adorn a different kind of vessel on a different kind of Portuguese expansion. It’s now the main feature of the office,” explains Cristina.
Visitors can’t help but be charmed by the office, with reactions ranging from surprise – especially after they learn that the business is a start-up – to a subdued look of awe. “Some people are amazed by how big it is, because so many people still think all start-ups are teenagers in garages. And a lot of them are really surprised by the fact that we have over 150 employees,” adds Cristina. “The [original] office [in Bairro Alto] was very different. It was a lot smaller – all we had was a desk in a co-working space when we started there. But as we grew, we needed the entire office to ourselves. By the end of 2015, even the whole office was starting to feel small as we kept growing, until it came to a point where we really had to move.”
The expansion was definitely a wise call. Since relocating to the new headquarters, Uniplaces has already increased its headcount by 40 people. But despite the numbers, the business, which raised US$24 million in a Series A round at the end of 2015, is still very much a start-up, which is why it was adamant about creating spaces that are versatile and approachable
“It is important to be versatile and adapt as the company’s strategy evolves,’ explains Cristina. “As we face new challenges, we have to be flexible in terms of team structure, for example, as much as headcount. This office was designed to have that added advantage: it’s all very adaptable, we can move around as we evolve.”
What’s more, the versatility of the office space works on the micro level as well, catering to each individual staff member and their preferences when it comes to work, rest and play. When asked which area employees like best, Cristina struggles to nail one particular zone.
“That’s such a tough question! It depends, because you have so many different personalities here… Some people love to work horizontally, so they love the net, whereas some will be found using the booths as standing desks. Other people enjoy the bright winter garden, where they will sit and enjoy a cup of coffee, while the more active ones will take their breaks to play each other in really competitive ping pong games,” she says.
As per the brief, Paralelo Zero designed the space to be open while ensuring that there were plenty of opportunities for smaller spaces to exist through moveable furniture and fixed spaces, such as the library. You’ll also find plenty more places for interaction or relaxation speckled throughout the office, including the greenhouse, the kitchen and ping pong area. The office is not all style-and-no-substance, though, with flow between departments being at an all time high.
“It has definitely helped to improve communication between departments, making all the processes faster. The booths have been really useful, both for individuals and small groups, as people can retreat from the open space for a little while,” explains Christina, saying that on top of facilitating optimal workflow, the design also serves to strengthen Uniplacers’ working relationships in general.
“Many employees will stay longer in the common areas, yes. After all, they were meant to improve interaction between teams, and even so after working hours. It’s not strange to see people enjoying a beer after work in the living room, the winter garden or around the ping pong table, or exercising in the gym.”
As if that weren’t bait enough to attract anyone looking to work there, Cristina adds, “It might be worth mentioning that there’s an Irish pub right under the office. You’ll also find employees of different teams hanging out there hours after the last person has left the office.”
Mixing business and pleasure has never looked so productive.