How to Design a Workspace for Optimum Employee Wellness

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How do Headspace, SoundCloud and Airbnb roll?

Airbnb

What makes a winning workspace, where productivity, creativity and wellness flourish? Kelly Robinson, vibe manager for start-up megastars, shares her secrets.

“The office space is a container of energy and when that container of energy vibrates love, possibility, positivity, kindness and compassion, it’s a much, much, much better place to work,” says Kelly Robinson from Los Angeles, where she’s currently designing meditation company Headspace’s Santa Monica digs.

“People will want to work, they’ll do better work, they’ll have better conversations, they’ll come up with better ideas and there’ll be less blockages in getting stuff done,” she continues.

One of the most common workplace problems Kelly encounters are issues with productivity, which she believes stem from interruptions to flow resulting from poorly functioning workspaces.

The Chicago-born economics and communications graduate of the University of Arizona is a self-taught designer of workspaces, utilising philosophies from feng shui, yoga, hospitality, travel and Mother Nature herself.

SoundCloud HQ, Berlin

“When you have a space with a really elevated vibe, a really elevated design, really kind, service-oriented people running it and the people who are in the space really love it, there’s not really room for chaos, fear and confusion and it just flows,” she says. “People can just unleash their creativity, productivity, decision-making ability and ingenuity.”

It was Kelly’s nine months working on a billionaire’s yacht in the Mediterranean and Caribbean that sent her into this career, which sees her command the unique job description of “vibe manager”.

“I learned what it was like to be in a space with no inefficiency whatsoever, no clutter, no mess. Everything was intentional, the design was super intentional and every single thing was designed to serve a certain purpose.

“I learned how to store and sort things that are needed, but how to get rid of anything that is not needed and how to manage and maintain a space to a very particular standard. I had to watch so closely how people interacted with the space, everything from the lighting to the temperature, the music and how people used the space to eat.”

Airbnb

When the time came to move on, Kelly took her newly found insight, along with the business card of a venture capitalist who she met during her time away, and with the help of his reference, she landed a job at then fledgling online accommodation start-up Airbnb.

It was 2010 and Airbnb had merely 10 employees and no investors. Today, the company is valued at US$25 billion and boasts a string of high-profile investors like Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary. Kelly started in customer service before moving into office management and then, with exponential growth forcing Airbnb to move offices numerous times, Kelly was charged with the task of designing their workspaces to maximise productivity and worker satisfaction. The first move, into a 4500-square foot space, had a budget of AU$10,000. By 2011, Kelly had a US$1 million budget to rehome the then 250 Airbnb employees into a 25,000-square foot space.

Given two of the company founders, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, were both graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design and therefore heavily versed in design aesthetics, Kelly’s task was to “extract” their vision for the space and bring it to life.

According to Kelly, it was Brian who came up with concept of creating office spaces based on exact replicas of some of the Airbnb listings. She’s responsible for creating the famous Mushroom Dome at Airbnb’s former headquarters. Based on a real Californian cabin, it served as a unique conference room for staff.

“The office space is a container of energy and when that container of energy vibrates love, possibility, positivity, kindness and compassion, it’s a much, much, much better place to work.”

From Airbnb, Kelly moved to Swedish social sound platform SoundCloud, which at that time was a company spread across four different offices in Berlin, moving its headquarters to Factory Berlin (“an ecosystem for tech start-ups”) in 2014.

“We had a totally blank canvas,” says Kelly, adding that SoundCloud founders Alexander Ljung and Eric Wahlforss entrusted her with an impressive budget and empowered her to manage the project from inception to completion.

The finished product is a three-level office space featuring an internal staircase between two floors to encourage employees to move around. At the top is the “heart centre”, a central dining area characterised by music and “extrovert interaction”. The quieter work wings are for more serious business. The office also features a wood-burning fireplace to compensate for the intense German winters, nap rooms for jetlagged staff flying in from San Francisco, a green room with floor-to-ceiling plants providing “fresh, oxygenated air” and, being SoundCloud, a recording studio.

“It’s my experience travelling the world that has really taught me everything that I know about humans and how they interact and how they relate to space.”

“The other big part was how much we did focus on sound and the acoustics of the space… which I think most architects don’t prioritise,” she says.

If the aim is to improve employee productivity and pride, then the proof of success is in the happiness surveys SoundCloud undertakes every three months to ascertain employees’ personal and business satisfaction. After moving into the new offices, Kelly says scores “skyrocketed” across all measures.

But more than just executing a vision for the bricks and mortar, Kelly says good office spaces can only exist when they’re managed on principles that align with the best in hospitality.

“It’s really about mothering in a certain way,” she says. “The design is great, but if it’s not managed well and if it’s not treated well by the people in it, it’s not going to be a great environment.”

Read More: Take A Mosey Through SoundCloud’s Berlin HQ

Kelly believes workplaces need to be designed and managed for optimum wellness, hence her use of nap rooms and the incorporation of natural light, well-ventilated air, multiple water stations and, where possible, the creation of spaces that invite movement such as lengthy hallways or staircases. She also encourages offices to create wellness programs, from the provision of food to yoga classes for employees.

But Kelly’s extensive travel, to 40 countries and counting, influences her design projects.

“It’s about deeply, deeply understanding human beings and what makes us all human and all one. There are lots of things that make us different, but there are certain things that make us all the same and it’s my experience travelling the world that has really taught me everything that I know about humans and how they interact and how they relate to space,” she says.

Kelly has many spiritual guides in her life, from yoga teachers like Swedish-born Rachel Brathen and internationally renowned teacher Kathryn Budig as well as meditation guru Andy Puddicombe and author and academic Brené Brown, who also influence her work on an intellectual level. Missing from the list of immediate inspirations are other designers or architects.

Kelly currently divides her time between California and Berlin, where, while working for SoundCloud, she also opened a yoga studio.

Describing herself as a richly spiritual person, Kelly firmly believes that her spiritual practise, specifically yoga, underpins all of her success in her working life.

“It’s my ability to make everybody feel like they matter and feel like they’re contributing to something special and good. That it’s not just work. That’s when people give extra and really care about the work that they’re doing.”

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