How did Shopify become one of Canada's most successful technology companies? By letting its employees work the way they want. Nancy Won tours its Waterloo office and reports on how design drives productivity
When I arrive at Shopify's Waterloo offices, my first thought is that I must be in the wrong place. "There it is," my driver says, pointing at a monstrous, yellow brick building with rickety shutters and bleak penitentiary vibes. This can't be right. Aren't tech companies supposed to have ultra modern offices with flashy architecture and fun slides? And isn't this Shopify – the crown jewel of Canadian tech? I'd heard about their glorious Ottawa and Toronto offices, with log cabin meeting rooms and shipping container-inspired walls, respectively, but confronted with this tepid yellow facade I wonder if Waterloo is the runt of the litter.
As soon as I walk through the door, however, my jaw drops. In an homage to its former life as a Seagram whisky distillery, the office's amber wood atrium is stacked with antique barrels all the way up to the five-storey-high rafters, and communal tables stretch out across the monastic-mess-hall-meets-royal-cellar-esque space. It's breathtaking. I can't help myself, I pull out my phone and start snapping pictures like a shameless tourist.
Even in a tech space populated by innovative companies and playground-like interiors, Shopify's approach to office design sets it apart from the crowd. The company is not interested in creating fancy-looking environments for the sake of aesthetics. Its main objective is to engineer spaces that actually support the people working in them.
Shopify's Waterloo office, which opened in June 2016 and is currently undergoing an expansion, is the newest of the organization's five locations. And despite being a non-client-facing outpost in a tech-y college town, it's arguably its most impressive address. Located in a 19th-century distillery, this building is where Shopify Plus, the division that serves high-growth, high-volume clients (think Nestle, General Electric and Red Bull, as well as viral millennial brands like Drake's OVO and Kylie Jenner's Kylie Cosmetics), is based. The 40,000-square-foot space is home to 250 employees, which by traditional office standards, means there is a lot of unoptimized, unoccupied space. By Shopify standards, however, it's cramped. "We've actually outgrown this space," says Loren Padelford, vice president and general manager of Shopify Plus. "We have another building under construction right now 70 metres away."
Every Shopify office has the same basic structure: large open areas and communal spaces with meeting rooms and team pods branching out from there. I'm taken on a tour of the Waterloo office, starting in the town hall area (the epic barrel cellar that greeted me on arrival), which is where corporate announcements are made, panel discussions take place and also where people sit down for lunch. (Lunch, by the way, is catered every day at no cost to employees.) Down the hall is a cozy cafe, fully stocked with premium coffee and bottomless snacks. The bar upstairs has beer on tap, video game consoles and ping-pong tables.
Halfway through the tour I spot a 20-something guy in a plaid shirt and thick-rimmed glasses kicking back on a sofa with a stickered-up laptop and a bag of Doritos. This may not be what most employers would say a productive worker looks like, but for Padleford it's proof that the space is working. "What we're trying to do is create an environment that inspires people to do their best work," he says. "But not everyone's the same. I like my standing desk, but not everyone likes standing desks. Or sitting desks. Not everyone likes desks! Some people want to work in lounge chairs. Some people want to work on couches. Some people like to work in a bar. What we're doing is allowing people to move around and work where they feel most effective."
The open spaces also support the kind of work culture Shopify encourages. Namely one where collaboration, cooperation and creativity can spark in unexpected ways between the most unlikely people. "The office space just serves to amplify what Shopify is all about in terms of the cross-functional talking that's constantly going on," say Praneethi Komat-Reddy, a merchant success manager who has been with the company since April 2016. "Open spaces really help to open up your mindset. None of the pods have doors, so just metaphorically, it's like, never close your mind to anything. I know I can just walk into any pod and say, 'Hey guys, I have an idea I want to run past you,' and we'll have a spontaneous meeting right there."
Another benefit of open work environments is the motivation derived from seeing others working towards the same goal. "It's not like in a more traditional office with cubicles where you don't know a project is even happening until it's done," says Komat-Reddy. "People write on walls here, they write on windows, you see sales guys running around all the time, like sprinting. Everyone's moving all the time and I think that kind of fuels your energy, and pushes you to hustle a little bit more."
That kind of transparency, collaboration and motivation doesn't happen by accident. "I think an office space is a reflection of the company's concerns and values," says Jonathan Sabine, co-founder of MSDS Studio, a Toronto-based design firm, whose clients include developer TAS DesignBuild, publisher House of Anansi, creative agency Common Good, tech start-up TWG, and the Toronto office of Shopify. "A thoughtfully designed space can help to foster company values, and imply certain behaviours, attitudes and interactions between employees."
Shopify's Toronto space is known for its intentionally maze-like floor plan. "We love the idea of an environment having a sense of discovery and exploration," says Jessica Nakanishi, co-founder of MSDS. "It's really about incorporating elements of fun, sparking curiosity and creating moments that I think, consciously or unconsciously, become very important to the creative process."
The relationship between productivity and office space may be difficult to measure but it's hard to imagine that a space a person spends all day in doesn't prime him or her for better or for worse. One thing that can be measured, however, is happiness. "There are people here all the time," says Padleford. "I'll come in on a Saturday because I forgot something, and there will be people here just hanging out. You know you're doing something right when people show up on weekends to hang out in the office."
This is no small achievement considering how competitive tech recruitment is in today's market. "There's an arms race in the tech industry right now for retaining the best talent, and the physical space is a huge part of that," says Sabine. "We've actually had a few companies tell us that they need to get better employees, but they're having trouble taking them away from the places like Shopify."
And this is precisely the point. "If, as a company, you're not thinking about office design and intentionally giving people spaces that are conducive to their working style, they're gonna leave and we can't afford that," says Padleford. "I think the fundamental thing that separates us from other businesses is that we see the people who work here as humans, they're not just line items. If you're going to optimize for line items, yeah cubicle heaven, man. But if you're going optimize for how humans do their best work, there is no other option."