2 Years of Design Experiments, Data: Grind Grows Up

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Chair Of The Month

Since our first article on their NYC space, Grind has expanded to another NYC location and is about to launch in Chicago, where we’ll be hosting a Work Design Talk on “Designing for Employee Interaction” on 7/25.

In this interview with Grind Founder Benjamin Dyett, we dig into the design experiments he’s run during the past two years at their high-end collaboration space.
Why don’t you refer to Grind as coworking?

One of the reasons we don’t use the word “coworking” to define Grind is because we don’t have dedicated seating or private offices. These things don’t add to the flow and exchange of ideas.

Instead, we say we’re “a collaborative platform.” People can come together and exchange ideas together here. From the beginning, we’ve always built and designed it for collaboration, and we’ve fostered it. We want people to sit next to new people every day, to find out if these new people can help them with their project. This encourages collaboration.


In what other ways do you design for collaboration?

Through our staff. Our team is great at understanding what everyone is up to in the space. They help people make connections – they’re facilitators of those connections.

We designed a coffee bar that offers Chemex and pour-over brewing, which is a time-consuming process. So it could take 10 minutes to get a great cup of coffee in these ways, and that’s when serendipitous interactions occur. We design for that wait time.

In fact, members have found these moments so effective to get away and interact that they set up a Twitter account, Teatime at Grind, and they tweet when they’re going to break. So a whole group of members gathers to converse over coffee, driven by this social-media channel update.

Then there’s the placement and type of furniture. We’ve done a huge amount of experimentation; one of the benefits of not having walls is that we’ve created all our environments and sub-environments with furniture. If it’s not working, we can move it.

For example, soft seating in between benching has always been a successful and popular set-up because people will work at the benching, but then will take a break to have a more relaxed conversation. So they’ll just stand up, turn around, and sit down on the couch with a couple other folks, and they’ll have a completely different type of work happen.

We exclusively use Vitra furniture because of its unique design with the high-backed soft alcoves. Those can be configured in a number of ways, from just one on its own where the high backs and sides are padded to create a private area, to having two face each other for a small meeting room for 2-4 people.

In fact, we found that the smaller roundtables seem to be more popular with members. Turns out members like being closer to other people at the table, so they can have conversation and collaboration very quickly and easily at a table for four, but the bigger tables that seat six or more ended up being too intimidating. Members think the radius is too large to talk across comfortably, which inherently makes it a larger conversation. So those larger tables have proved to be less popular.

How have acoustics or privacy concerns played into your design experiments?

We have spent a lot of time experimenting around acoustics. Not only is every space different, but every segment of a space has different acoustics.

For instance, we use a combination of sound panels in the ceiling, area rugs, or carpets, plus electronic sound masking. Each segment of the space has been fine tuned with these elements; the sound masking is incredibly effective. It’s made it possible to have 100 people every day in an open room and not have any conversation travel more than 10 feet from its point of origin.

Sound panels along the windows help to absorb and deaden the sound coming in from the street through the windows. Carpet tiles and area rugs help kill the bounce of the sound in some areas where it’s more prevalent.

How has programming played a role in your membership or expansion?

When we started the business, we were running programming you see in a lot of new spaces like ours. The programming would be educational in nature, like “how to launch a website,” or “how to get a social media strategy.” But once our community formed, it wasn’t a bunch of people who were starting their businesses and needing to be educated like that. It was seasoned entrepreneurs who chose this lifestyle. They were resourceful and accomplished.

They found the programming annoying, so they told us to stop doing it, and we did. But we kept having conversations with them, and over time they wanted a window to the outside world because most were so heads-down that they missed a lot of the new trends.

If they could have access to the new trends, they could get even more benefit from the Grind community. So we launched a monthly morning lecture series called ReThink. We find industry disruptors and thought leaders to come in and give talks over breakfast from 8-9:30 AM. Our members can attend, or if they don’t want to hear it, they just roll in around 10 AM when they normally show up anyway. So it doesn’t interrupt their work, and it adds that value they wanted. It’s the only event we run at Grind.

But we’re designing the new space to accommodate a different kind of interaction — we’re building it to accommodate a space where members can hold their own events.

How have the outcomes of your design experiments informed the new spaces in NYC and Chicago?

Our first space is on the second floor of Park Avenue and 29th in NYC, and it’s been running for two years with constant experimentation of configurations, design elements, amenities, lighting … you name it.

Members in our Park Ave location work late, so it’s not conducive to community events during the week because our members are trying to get work done there. We do events occasionally on Friday nights, but we’re closed on the weekends to members, so that opens the space to the community for events.

We want to run more of these, so we’re now opening a second location in NYC on 39th and Broadway (on the 22nd floor). The main thing is that it’s larger – it can hold about 125 people – and when it opens around July 15, our members from either location can hold events there.

How has the design of your business itself – and the hospitality it offers to members – changed over time?

We’re sticking with a lot of the original foundational elements of our business. For example, we don’t ask members for commitments – it’s month to month; we work liquid. That comes with a lot of different meanings, but there is freedom to come and go as you please as your work requires.

We built the concept around the individual freelancer who has work sometimes and no work other times. So we won’t tie people down to a year-long occupancy and add stress. We want them to come and go as they please, because that makes for a more encouraging, collaborative, flexible work environment and community.

After all, we started this business for ourselves; we couldn’t find a stable, professional environment where we could fill in the gaps of our expertise with like-minded people. Grind became that place; a professional environment where we would never be embarrassed to bring any client we have.

So we had to drill down on the hospitality piece of this – high design, cleanliness, superior quality, and not nickel-and-diming people. It’s a pay-one-price model; you pay your monthly fee and don’t worry about anything else. Triple-redundant, reliable WiFi starting with 100MB fiber line means the Wifi doesn’t drop. The toner is always fresh in the copier. We take care of it so you don’t need to think about it.

We manage the risk of this liquid style of working by being really good at what we do – a clean, professional workspace that has a community people find value in.

Our utilization is very closely managed, we’ve got it down to the point where it doesn’t vary much. The same number of people show up every day, and we understand the members and how they use the space.

The results have been phenomenal for us; it’s an art rather than a science.

That’s why we felt ready to expand in NYC and Chicago.

Why Chicago?

Chicago was an easy choice. The whole startup world has been cracked wide open by 1871 (a popular incubator/accelerator). 1871 blew up the entrepreneurial world.

Now, Grind is not a startup space, but we do have startups in the space. They are experienced entrepreneurs who are starting their second businesses. We’re a premium space that caters to companies that make money.

And when we came across this double-height space in a downtown skyscraper in Chicago, we had to have it.

The space – on the 14th floor of the building – was the only office on the 14th and 15th floors, and it spans the front of the building with two banks of windows and a 22′ height. It used to be a mechanical floor, so that’s why we get the dramatic mezzanines.

Chicago’s workspace scene is incredibly underserved. We’re not sure what the community will look like when our doors officially open around August 1, but we know that there are at least 110 freelancers and independent workers who’ll grow successful businesses there.

And all while helping us evolve the Grind experience, too.


Come see Grind before it officially opens to the public by attending “Designing for Employee Interaction,” a design- networking event and panel discussion moderated by Work Design Magazine, on 7/25.

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