Saturday, January 10, 2015

Inside the Corporate Yurt

To start off, I never actually did get to occupy one of the yurts.  The tour was moving quickly, and with the open floor plan and my poor spatial skills, I feared that to be left behind would mean getting totally lost.  But I got a good look at the yurts.  They were about ten feet tall and a dozen feet in diameter, made of wood and light fabric, and open in the front.  The walls were divided in triangular sections and varied from opaque to translucent to nothing.  Some yurts had chairs; others just had cushions.

I was visiting a San Francisco tech company, in the hip South-of-Market (SOMA) neighborhood, with windows overlooking the bay.  It was a very large, high-ceilinged lofty space.  No matter why I was there; for all you know, I toured it just for this blog, or was covering corporate kitchens, freelance, for Ladies’ Home Journal.  I will tell you I was not being recruited, though it’s hard to tour such a novel, interesting place and not imagine working there.

Modern, quirky, colorful furniture was scattered around, in  (seemingly) random fashion.  There was quite a bit of empty space.  Some areas had empty chairs and desks arranged in neat rows, like a classroom, but mostly the arrangement was ad hoc.  Our guide explained that all the desks—which were pretty much just tables—could easily be raised so you could stand at them instead of sitting.  The overall vibe was more trade show than corporate HQ.

One thing I saw zero of?  Offices.  There were a few meeting rooms, but the walls and doors were all glass.  Also conspicuously absent:  cubicles.  Cubicles equal Dilbert.  Offices, meanwhile, suggest hierarchy and bureaucracy.  This wall-less, open floor plan might be designed as a spatial metaphor for the open-standards hi-tech development realm that removes barriers to innovation.  The place just says “startup.”

Oddly, the company I visited isn’t actually a startup.  It started that way (obviously), but as so often happens it was soon purchased by an industry juggernaut, though it still operates as its own company.  This is not an Uber-type outfit that will blow up a giant, embedded system of logistics and replace it with something categorically different.  Their product will not go viral, or change society, or get you laid.  As tech products go, it’s not on the same lowly end of the spectrum as an HP printer, but it’s also not Facebook.  It’s essentially the Internet equivalent of a much, much better mousetrap.

Better mousetraps, of course, are not sexy, because they’re not … wait for it … disruptive.  The Pied Piper .. now he was disruptive.  Perhaps when a more or less traditional tech company like this, that manufactures objects you can physically touch, tries to recruit top Gen-Y talent, it helps if the work environment is non-traditional, playful, and wacky.

There was an order to things, though.  Different functions (HR, marketing, engineering, operations) were arranged in informal clumps, with empty space between.  This workplace has the sprawl of a megalopolis, at least for now.  So did all this empty space feel moribund, like a ghost town?  Nope.  New-and-empty is a lot different than old-and-empty.  The atmosphere was one of great confidence:  “We may not need all this space right now, but we will soon.”

I had to wonder, where are the Razor scooters?  Maybe that would seem clichéd.  Could it be that employee scooters are over?  I mentioned them to my teenage daughter and she said, “Epic! I need that!”  So, even if they’re passé, maybe they’ll make a comeback in a few years.

Inside one yurt was a giant flat-screen monitor connected to a variety of gaming systems.  Predictable enough.  But then another space had pinball machines, which (our guide told us) were brought in by an employee from his personal collection.  My daughter played her first game of pinball recently, at the Exploratorium (a museum) and was bummed when I outscored her.  How do these pinball machines play out here?  If the rare older employee dazzles the millennials with his skills, does this make him cool or lame?

I couldn’t help but wonder, as we wandered through, what this workplace would be like for an introvert like me.  I could imagine developing a case of agoraphobia here, like so much openness would eventually wear me out.  Of course the idea behind this setting is to encourage collaboration and creativity, but doesn’t the latter flourish in a completely private space?  (I’m thinking here of writers’ or artists’ colonies where you mingle some of the time, but also have a private studio or cottage where you are utterly free from distractions.)

In tech, you certainly need extroverts to dazzle investors, recruit talent, and generate enough media hype to keep the vision alive ... but you also need coders and engineers, and aren’t a lot of these folks on the shy side?  What do they do for privacy … plug in headphones and listen to music?  It wasn’t that loud in there ... perhaps employees don’t always take advantage of being face-to-face.  Maybe a lot of them just have instant message chats all day, with colleagues six feet away.

There was a room, larger than the yurts, that actually had two or three opaque walls, and in the corner was a baby grand piano.  I could imagine this being really useful for an introvert … he could go in there and surround himself with a wall of sound.  Of course this only helps if you know how to play.

Just like at Google, there was a large cafeteria where all the food is free.  “Cafeteria” gives the wrong impression; the combination of tall windows overlooking the bay, the high ceiling, and the scattering of small, round tables created the feel of a café (though one that goes on and on).  I was too late for the spare ribs, but had some apricot chicken, and ravioli that was so sophisticated I can’t remember what was in it.  Squash, I guess, and the pasta casing was varicolored (spinach and sun-dried tomato?), lightly bathed in brown butter instead of a boring tomato sauce.  There was a large salad station (as far from the little buckets and sneeze-guards of a salad bar as this company’s workspace is from a cube farm).  The most sophisticated thing about the cafeteria was this:  not only did they have bottled soda instead of fountain drinks, they had Mexican Coke (made with sugar instead of corn syrup).  Pretty impressive.

Outside the cafeteria was a little table with a sign saying “Suggestions.”  There was no paper to write on or box to drop a written suggestion into.  Rather, the table was covered with Lego, with which to spell out your comment.  Brevity is clearly encouraged.

The tour ended with the lunch, and I never had the chance to ask what, exactly, was the purpose of the yurts.  Perhaps that’s for the best … maybe our guide wouldn’t have had a definitive answer, and maybe it’s better just to wonder.  Here are a few of my guesses: 
  • A pseudo-private meeting place.  Occupation of the yurt tells passers-by not to join in on the discussion.  In this way, the yurt functions like the conch in Lord of the Flies.
  • A place for having a time-out.  Talking is not allowed in the yurt, so it’s a place where an introvert goes to daydream.
  • A place for a punitive time-out, like the ominously named “center pod” in my kid's kindergarten class, where misbehaving students did time.
  • The yurt is symbolic of a nomadic inclination, and serves to remind upper management that they must continuously renew the love of their young, flighty talent.
  • The yurt is a living experiment, perhaps one of many, being conducted by a very sophisticated, savvy HR department, to gain insight into the mysterious minds of their Gen-Y employees.
  • The yurt is actually mostly useless, and exists only so the company can boast of having yurts.
Do you have any theories?  Have you lived or worked in a yurt?  Comment below, or e-mail me.  And if you’re reading this long, long after 2015, in a time when corporate yurts are ubiquitous, send me your recollections (e.g., “I’ll never forget my first yurt…”) and I’ll post them here, or in a follow-up essay.


  1. At my company, Faithlife, I work on an open floor with between twenty and thirty-five or so (if we have interns) programmers. We don't have yurts, but we do have fancy chairs and electric desks, along with lounge chairs for the cool, young programmers who can't work unless they're hanging out in some public space in a pack of other, cool young programmers, working on Mac Books, and slouching in lounge chairs. Usually they're laughing and making fun of code written by old people, but if they need their music, they'll be wearing humongous headphones. We used to think that the smaller the headphones, the cooler they were, until they were so small you put them inside your ears. My theory about the yurts is that my company will get some to put lounge chairs in, to make programming that much cooler.

    1. Bry, be glad you're around such cool young people! I'm sure they'll wear off on you and you'll gradually absorb a little bit of that cool. Just be careful when you slouch on the lounge chairs, and when you stand up from your slouch ... you don't want to hurt your back!

  2. Some synchronicity here with a book I'm reading: Party of One: The Loner's Manifesto

    1. Thanks for the tip ... I looked over that book and I think I'm going to have to read it!