One wall inside Facebook’s new headquarters is splashed with red block letters, reading: “move fast and break things.” Another is covered with a mural of huge, bright flowers.
Those creative decisions didn’t come from a top design firm, however; they came from some of Facebook’s 3,000 employees who call the new Menlo Park campus home.
“Most of the interiors are blank canvases onto which Facebook employees can project their own identities,” said Randy Howder of Gensler, which helped to plan the design of the new space. “They all have very different personalities.”
Employees are empowered to take control of their workspaces. They bring in artists, designers, and friends to hang out and dress up the office.
“At the end of day, this can be a little bit messy sometimes, but this is who they are. It’s not for everybody,” said Howder.
Howder spoke at the WorkTech12 West Coast conference about designing the social network’s nine-building, one million-square-foot headquarters that debuted last December.
John Tenanes, director of real estate for Facebook, discussed the tricky task of retaining the startup “DNA” of a billion-dollar public company with one billion users.
The social giant — which was famously started eight years ago in a Harvard dorm room — moved its headquarters in 2009 from a group of new buildings in downtown Palo Alto to Stanford Research Park. It was in full-blown growth mode, opening 10-15 field offices every six months.
So Facebook made a bold move; they bought the former Sun Microsystems campus in nearby Menlo Park. It was deja vu for Tenanes, who helped build that site 20 years ago while at Oracle, where he worked. (Oracle later bought Sun Microsystems).
But for Tenanes, it wasn’t all feel-good memories.
“When we started the project, we walked around the campus, and I said, ‘Oh my God. This looks like an Italian convalescent home.’”
Gensler came in to build the project in 15 months to get one million square feet online. They applied the concept of “beta space” since Facebook was still growing.
“Beta spaces are raw. They are about end-user experimentation,” Howder said. For example, cultural artifacts in a beta space might come in the form of art installations, or coffee shops are used in lieu of conference rooms.
So Gensler put themselves in the shoes of Facebook engineers. They shadowed employees and learned the nuances of how they interact. They also drew ideas from their work on Facebook’s downtown Palo Alto office in 2008, when the company was still very much a startup.
The goal was to create a non-rigid, organic space where a culture could flourish instead of being forced in a certain direction.
Lots of decisions are based on company values, rather than architecture or design. The use of raw materials and industrial space, for example, is a byproduct of moving fast because employees believe they aren’t ever finished with the work they are trying to do.
The flexible spaces — built out for engineers but usable by sales or marketing staff — means they can pack up and move to another area of the campus and let others take their spots. That makes the workspaces change and evolve year to year.
“You can learn a lot about a company by what’s literally on the walls. We don’t have clinical-looking logos on ours,” said Chris Cox, vice president of product at the company, which employs 4,000 worldwide.
Handing over a piece of clay for employees to mold was, at first, hard for a skilled design firm like Gensler to hear.
“We fought with them often and it was a learning curve,” said Tenanes. “We often would say we want you to un-design this space. We don’t want you to design it.”
Some design elements, however, were crucial to making the spaces work. With 50,000-square-foot floor plates, it was hard to get employees to interact and communicate between floors.
To solve that problem, wide bridges were built to connect the buildings, which stand two to three stories tall. Employees balancing a laptop in one hand and a coffee in the other can continue chatting with co-workers as they enter through automatic doors.
Gensler wanted to install a Star Trek swishing sound when the doors opened to please the company’s sci-fi fans, but unfortunately, copyright issues kept that from happening.
Facebook made up for it with a long list of other perks. Employees loved the downtown Palo Alto’s access to restaurants and coffee shops, so Facebook transplanted those amenities under one roof at its new location.
“We are having great success with our doctor’s office,” said Tenanes.
There’s also a Philz Coffee, which has a cult-like following in San Francisco. Fuki Sushi, a recent installment, is also a hit.
“By creating this urban environment, employees are really happy to hang out, socialize, and collaborate,” said Tenanes.
The campus isn’t quite complete. Across the street the company is currently building its ninth building, consisting of a gigantic 500,000-square-foot room for its product team.