CEOs Talk Workplace: Aaron Hurst on His HQ for Pragmatic Optimists

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Bob Fox
Bob Fox
Bob is an industry leader and the founding partner at Fox Architects in Washington DC, celebrating 20 years of design professionals working together to reshape the office and work environment. Bob also publishes Work Design Magazine, which, with its thousands of global subscribers, is the premier online publication dedicated to workplace strategy, information, and resources. Bob earned his B.A. in Architecture from Temple University in Philadelphia. When he’s not innovating new concepts for the workplace, Bob leads a competitive sailing team on his 44-foot race boat, “Sly.” He’s been racing offshore for almost 20 years, sailing more than 30 thousand nautical miles of open ocean. Bob lives in the Washington DC area with his wife, son, and three daughters. He remains focused on our changing work environments, and the state of workplace design today, and looking ahead to dynamic shifts that are forthcoming.


Find out how this CEO of a tech startup created a space for his purpose-driven team.

Aaron Hurst is the CEO of Imperative, a Seattle-based company that makes a talent-assessment platform for purpose-based employees, enabling companies to identify purpose in their work and apply their purpose drivers to realize greater potential. Hurst is also the author of The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community is Changing the World. It should come as no surprise, then, that Hurst has a few ideas about designing a workplace to better support a company’s purpose, which is exactly what we discussed with him recently on the phone.

Scroll for the interview.

Bob Fox: Give us a sense of your business.
Aaron Hurst: We’re a tech startup; a social benefits organization. We’re all about [asking] “How do we fundamentally inspire the nature of work in our society?” We have developed a talent assessment platform for purpose-driven employers. We work with companies from Etsy to LinkedIn to Starbucks to help employees discovery and act on their purpose.

Photo courtesy Imperative.
Photo courtesy Imperative.

Describe the people who work there.
It’s a group of, by definition, purpose-driven folks. We like to call ourselves pragmatic optimists. We say we’re refugees from broken systems.

How would you describe your culture?
It’s hard to describe culture. I would speak to that pragmatic optimism as the top thing, a high sense of what’s possible, that’s the top of the culture. I think it defines everything that we’re doing, those two words: pragmatic optimism.

Is that something that’s embodied in your new office space?
Yeah, absolutely. I love office space and designing. So if you walk into our space from the front entrance, you walk down a hallway, and on each side of the wall there are comic book superheroes — different “purpose types” that we have people connect to. It’s like walking into a superhero poster, and you’re reminded to show up as your superhero everyday. It’s really fun and inspiring, but with some jest and humor to it — we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re also really connected to the pulse of the city, in an authentic way. And that was important to me.

Photo courtesy Imperative.
Photo courtesy Imperative.

We also put a lot of plants in the office. We want to bring natural life inside, and the team has named every plant. It’s another way of bringing a sense of humor into the office, and being amongst things that are living.

What was the big goal when you set out to design the office space?
A lot of it was around the idea that you wanted to be inspired everyday when you come into the office, and it was important to me that we were in a strong urban center.

Are you in any way connected to the community, use your space to connect with the community?
Not yet, but it’s part of a building where there’s a lot of communal space. We’re going to start doing purpose labs every month, and use the space to convene local leaders.

Photo courtesy Imperative.
Photo courtesy Imperative.

How does workplace help to drive business goals?
You need to have a space that allows you to bring on the best team to feel safe and supportive and be productive, and have the ability to bring clients in to the building.

What’s the biggest value that you feel like you get from your workplace?
To me I’ve always thought that the space is not just the function, it’s a strong part of the brand, and grounds everyone in the organization. A manifestation of brand, more so than a website and more so than a brochure, reminds us everyday of what our brand is, and what we stand for. An office space should remind us of those things, and when it’s successful, it does.

Photo courtesy Level.
Photo courtesy Imperative.

What’s the most important function you’re using your space for?
Getting shit done and having a place to work — and that’s 90 percent of it. My grandfather always said keep exhilaration on top of exhaustion, and you’ve got to have a space where you can have setbacks but the team can reenergize every morning despite how long the day before was, that’s so important.

Are you using your space to collaborate a lot, and innovate and iterate ideas?
Absolutely. We’ve got separate conference rooms set up that we really use to capture ideas and iterate; we mark up walls and put up post it notes. All of the walls, like in a design studio, they’re part of a product’s journey.

Your business is all about helping organizations to find and focus their purpose, in your case is there anything about the space that helps you to do that?
We’re all about helping people to have the courage to lead, and lead with their values. Being where we are, it’s easy for the team to go out to dinner with each other, go out for drinks, that strong social capital can mean there’s a lot of purpose on your team. I find if you silo people too much you can get a certain kind of growth but not often radical growth, so we’ve really set up the office so it’s not just segregated by function.

Photo courtesy Imperative.
Photo courtesy Imperative.

Is there anything about your space that you designed to bring people together and engage like that?
It’s a small space so we couldn’t do too much creatively, but there’s common space where we can get together. We reflect every Monday and Friday on sources of meaning.

When somebody walks into your space, do they get a sense about what you guys do?
If someone comes in and sees those posters up in front, they connect with their inner child, get an immediate sense of what our brand’s about, and it’s very human, less formal. I think it captures who we are.

Where are you most willing to spend money when it comes to your space?
I tend to find there are really creative ways to do things that don’t require a lot of money. So you pay for location, but I feel like other things you can do more creatively. Not everyone with space may make the same decisions, but I like [employees] to feel like they have that flexibility. I was in a gorgeous office last week in New York, but it felt so perfect I would even feel weird bringing in a photo in a frame of my family, and you don’t want to not feel ownership.



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