Work Design NOW Winner Mercedes-Benz: Video and Case Study

See how workspace is supporting creativity and innovation at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America in the second installment of our three-part Work Design NOW research series, sponsored by Haworth.

This is the second post in a series of three reports showcasing the winners of the Work Design NOW 2014 competition, which was sponsored by Haworth. Check out the video above, then settle in to 25+ pages of images, floor plans, and inside scoop in the full case study.

Case study

Click here to download the full PDF version of the MBRDNA case study: Workspace to Support Creativity and Innovation at Mercedes-Benz

The case study is chock full of images, floor plans, and interviews with MBRDNA employees, the IA Interior Architects designers, and a Haworth workplace strategist. The full text of the case study, along with select images, is copied below.

Summary

In October 2013, Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America, Inc. (MBRDNA) moved into a new three floor, 72,000 square foot headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif. The space, designed by IA Interior Architects, includes an auto garage and lab, hardware and software labs, and a large studio space where designers and engineers work collaboratively on full-scale prototype models and concept cars of the future. The building is home to 170 employees who focus on research, advanced engineering design, autonomous driving, digital UX, product development, and testing for Mercedes-Benz cars.

With the new facility, Mercedes-Benz has:
  • Consolidated the headquarters from two locations, bringing the design and engineering teams together under one roof
  • Designed an innovative space that contributes to recruiting and retaining the best engineering talent in the Bay Area
  • Integrated the Mercedes-Benz brand by relying on the company’s design philosophy for cars as a design direction for the building
  • Future-proofed the space so that it can continue to support MBRDNA’s work at least ten years into the future

“It’s a very unique facility, especially in terms of having designers and engineers collaborating in the exact same studio space,” said Johann Jungwirth, who, at the time of our interview was the CEO of MBRDNA (he’s since taken a position at Apple). “This is really the future of Mercedes-Benz, and the automobile we are creating here.”

Photo by Takata Photography.

Introduction

It took us a minute—standing in the parking lot of the new MBRDNA HQ, having just experienced our first morning commute on 101—to wrap our heads around the reality that car companies are becoming as much like tech companies as they are, well, like car companies. But think about it: When cars can drive themselves, what will you do during the ride?

That’s what they’re working out at MBRDNA. The designers and engineers in the new HQ focus on developing autonomous driving technology and the related digital user experience. Their workplace has to be emotionally intelligent; it has to respond to their needs. In early visioning sessions, they laid out the concept: innovative, collaborative, elegant, well-integrated. “German precision meets Silicon Valley” came up more than once.

Mercedes’ vision of the car matches their vision of the future of the workplace.

The result of this vision has been deemed a runaway success. According to Jungwirth, the hard work has paid off: “At the end of the day, we want people to feel like they’re at home; that they have everything around them to support their work. The workplace adapts to them; they don’t adapt to their workplace.”

Examples of the way the space adapts—and the way it feels like home—are everywhere. The IA designers have worked tirelessly with MBRDNA execs to choose materials that express the elegance and innovation of the Mercedes-Benz brand throughout the building.

Employees can move among 120 fully adjustable workstations, as well enclosed offices, meeting spaces, and huddle and phone rooms, depending on the job at hand. Photos by Takata Photography.

Employees can move among 120 fully adjustable workstations, as well enclosed offices, meeting spaces, and huddle and phone rooms, depending on the job at hand. Photos by Takata Photography.

On the second and third floors, the research and development departments are laid out in what IA describes as “fluid configurations to provide the maximum required just-in-time mobility defined during interactive user interviews”. Employees can move among 120 fully adjustable workstations, as well enclosed offices, meeting spaces, and huddle and phone rooms, depending on the job at hand. Across all of it, there are 114 individual climate zones controlled by Nest.

IA turned each department into a “neighborhood” that’s identified by color and amenities, and subtly separated from the others in a series of smaller suites—conference rooms, huddle rooms, and phone rooms—by sliding glass partitions that are also used as writing surfaces.

“To me, the building represents the cutting edge of a bigger trend of creating these atmospheres,” said Dr. Michael O’Neill, a senior research strategist at Haworth. “That’s where we want to be. We want to keep people connected, we want to have them engaged with the organization and with each other. Overall, this space—and the very successful design of this space—is a great example of this trend.”

“Cellular transparency” and activity-based work

IA designed a transparent, cellular system where glass boxes define the “cells”, and small neighborhoods are activated by destination spots. Photo by Takata Photography.

IA dedicated the first meetings with MBRDNA execs to an intense visioning session to set the course for the project.

“First, we talked about the structure of the teams [at MBRDNA],” said Pietro Silva, a principal and design director at IA. “We sat with the engineers and said, ‘How do you work?’” They found out that the designers and engineers usually work together in teams of six to twelve people; it’s a highly collaborative group that, heretofore, had found its traditional environment—cubes, high gray walls, the works—inhibiting.

“That’s how we came up with the idea of neighborhoods, and transparency,” said Silva. “We drew up a cellular system that’s very transparent. The glass boxes define the ‘cells’, and small neighborhoods are activated by destination spots.”

“If you look at the plan it looks like a project that’s very divided in boxes, but when you experience the space, you can see through the entire floor plate,” he added.

With a transparent, cellular system like this one, there are different building blocks that can work together. You can connect different neighborhoods and parts of the plan , and there’s a natural traffic flow, with more informal “bump ins” among employees moving between workstations, enclosed offices, meeting spaces, and the huddle and phone rooms. Most of the employees have removed the short acrylic panels between their Knoll height-adjustable desks, furthering the sense of openness, and curved walls in many areas help with the flow and the sense of openness.

MBRDNA designers and engineers are a highly collaborative group that, heretofore, had found its traditional environment—cubes, high gray walls, the works—inhibiting. Photo by Takata Photography.

MBRDNA designers and engineers are a highly collaborative group that, heretofore, had found its traditional environment—cubes, high gray walls, the works—inhibiting. Photo by Takata Photography.

“You might have a two-hour conference call in a phone room, that way, employees aren’t taking calls in the open space,” said Jungwirth. All of the huddle rooms and phone rooms are unassigned and first-come, first-served. Only the conference rooms have schedules. The huddle and conference rooms are all enclosed in glass or have at least one IdeaPaint wall.

In another clever culture touchpoint, the conference rooms are named after cities, and huddle rooms are named after autobahns. “There’s an international population here and world highways made a nice concept,” said Silva. “It was a Mercedes engineer who came up with the idea.”

As for confidentiality in such an open environment, Jungwirth said that they control it with a simple process of “not letting people into spaces where confidential material is present.” But otherwise? “It’s a truly open and transparent space,” said Jungwirth. “You can see from one end to the building to the other. It fosters collaboration and open communication.” And it’s different from the way they do it in Germany, where designers and engineers are required to work in separate buildings.

It also fosters movement—beyond the many choices of activity-based work environments, employees also choose spaces within the building dependent upon which floor offers which amenity (the amenities being bars that feature Odwalla drinks, espresso, juices, fruits, or ice cream). All five aren’t available on every floor, but rather in dedicated common kitchens. Desperate for ice cream? You’ve got to walk for it.

It’s an open and transparent space. You can see from one end of the building to the other. It fosters collaboration and open communication.

Ditto each floor’s game room: you’re in the mood for foosball? Proceed to the second floor. Want to race a model Mercedes-Benz against the latest Audi on a mini racetrack? Head down to the first. There’s even a “chocolate lab”—decidedly not of the canine variety—where employees share the stacks of chocolate bars that they bring back from trips to other Mercedes-Benz facilities around the world (in addition to chocolate, the space houses simulators used in the R&D process).

Jungwirth compared this layout of “destinations” to a city or town: “You have different neighborhoods, different marketplaces, different places to go,” he said. “As in a town where there is only one grocery store, the different types of bars”—Odwalla, ice cream, etc.—”only exist once.”

“The opposite mentality is the supermarket,” said Silva, and Jungwirth interjected with a wink: “We’re a boutique shop.”

One of the seven terraces and balconies at the building; outdoor meetings and lunches are popular. Photo by Takata Photography.

To help with way-finding in this “town”, the designers have given each floor a color—yellow, green, or blue—and they’ve used three shades of each color to demarcate spaces by use: The darkest, most intense shade is reserved for the bars, huddle spaces, and support areas. In other words, the darkest shade “highlights the hot spots.” As you get closer to the core or the outside edges of the building, the walls have been painted with the lightest shades. And speaking of outside, the designers have made sure to take as much advantage of outdoor opportunities as possible, creating seven terraces and balconies. Outdoor meetings and lunches are popular.

“This building and the spaces within it represent a shift away from the traditional way of thinking about how to make people productive,” said O’Neill. “It’s an emotionally intelligent building.”

Expressing the Mercedes-Benz design philosophy in workspace

The reception desk at MBRDNA. Photo by Takata Photography.

The reception desk at MBRDNA. Photo by Takata Photography.

When you walk into the building, you can’t miss the sculptural silver pattern in the ceiling over the lobby. What takes a second to register is that it’s actually a loose, abstract iteration of the Mercedes “star”. It’s nothing if not sensual, and that’s the point: the latest design direction for Mercedes-Benz cars is “sensual purity as an expression of modern luxury”, and they worked tirelessly with IA to translate this into the finishes, materials, and the design of the space.

Outside, they’ve made a similar move, but this one stops traffic: a Mercedes star—twelve feet in diameter—rotates in the afternoon sun. It’s the only one like it in the world, on the ground level, at the entrance. Up until now, the company has required that these behemoths be attached at the highest point of the building. Decisions like that one have earned the Silicon Valley HQ a sort of “standard bearer” reputation in the company; it has even influenced the design of a planned R&D facility in China.

“The Mercedes brand is so well integrated into the space,” said Bob Fox, founder of Work Design Magazine. And it doesn’t stop with the logo: The Diamond Grille—get it?—café is next to the lobby (though even here, the floor tiles have been joined at a 120 degree angle to form the ubiquitous Mercedes star). Several employees can dine at a gorgeous communal log table, the centerpiece in the space (Jungwirth spent hours poring over trees to find just the right one). He even selected the ceiling paint, made up of several different shades of silver to create “just the right look.” Outside, there are large silver bike boxes for employees who prefer to pedal to work; Kartell Masters chairs populate the outdoor dining area.

“It just feels like our space,” said Jungwirth. “It’s not like the Google space, or anybody else’s. It’s ours. Especially with all of the silver paint.”

The cafeteria, which Mercedes has dubbed the Diamond Grille. Photo by Takata Photography.

Jungwirth even lent his hand to door heights in the lobby, raising them to nine feet so that they are able to pull cars into the building. Right now, they’re showing off the only existing model of the “Vision Gran Turismo” in the lobby, which appears in PlayStation’s Gran Turismo 6. The lobby also features a seven-panel interactive wall with nanotechnology film and a touch sensitive screen.

Upstairs, there’s space dedicated to “Mercedes Rev”, the group’s internal startup incubator, where employees can leave ideas on the IdeaPaint that spans a full, curved wall (even the curves in the walls and the ceilings mimic the lines of some of Mercedes’ latest models). In September, teams presented their prototypes, and MBRDNA awarded $15,000 to the top team to develop their idea.

Jungwirth said that all of this was intended to contribute to the sense of Mercedes’ brand and culture in the space. “It’s the total amount of all of these details, from the movable desk to the glass walls—like in this meeting room, in the doors: no metal frame, no wooden frame,” he said. “It’s aesthetically attractive and beautiful, but also functional.”

O’Neill agreed, sharing a list of words that come to mind in the space: “Elegance, simplicity, timelessness, high-touch, residential cues, and bringing the outside in.”

“This space is at the forefront of workplace evolution,” he said. “We’re seeing this shift away from metrics for success—all about productivity and linear process—to spaces that connect people emotionally to the company and to each other.”

“It’s a combination of different factors and if you try to pull it apart, you don’t have it,” he added. “It’s sort of the gestalt of the space: it’s all there, and when you’re in it you know it.”

Silicon Valley workspace as competitive edge in the technology and automotive industry

Nearly 20 years ago, Mercedes-Benz became the first automotive company to establish a research facility in Silicon Valley. In the decades since, everyone from Toyota to Tesla has set up shop. But in the war for talent, MBRDNA’s biggest competitors aren’t just the usual suspects—BMW, Audi, you name it. Now, as these companies draw closer to integrating cars into the “Internet of Things,” they’re competing even harder for talent with Google and Apple.

“It’s a competitive advantage over other companies,” said Jungwirth. “The type of people we wanted to attract with the old headquarters—we just couldn’t.”

At the end of the day, we measure the performance this space based on whether Mercedes-Benz is a leader in the industry; ahead of the curve.

Jungwirth shared a story about an exit interview with a young engineer, who worked at MBRDNA while they were still in their old HQ (one building of which was once—gasp—a law firm): “He told me, ‘I’m frightened by these walls’,” said Jungwirth. “I knew then that this was a change we’d need to make.”

“The only performance measure here is the amount of new innovation that makes it into the new cars,” said Fox. “There is a fail fast mentality, and rapid learning from lots of things that didn’t work.”

A peek into the auto garage, where Mercedes is working on their self-driving cars. Photo by Takata Photography.

The investment in this new building reaffirms Mercedes-Benz’s commitment to technology and innovation, and to the designers and engineers who create it. On the people side, the new space is supporting satisfaction and creativity. And on the technical side, they were able to add eight new competency centers and new equipment, including a room for a 3D printer so that they can prototype new modules and interior components within minutes.

“We’re working now on this car of the future and we were actually able to bring it into the building for the advanced user experience designers,” said Jungwirth. “At the end of the day, it’s actually about eliminating technology. It needs to be seamless. We want the car to be your digital companion—who you are, where you want to go, what music you want to listen to. All of that is created right here. We wanted to take the brand to a new level in Silicon Valley.”

Conclusion

“This is where cars are being designed ten and twenty years out into the future,” said Fox. “So not only does the space have to support Mercedes-Benz now, it has to be able to adapt to a variety of changes that are”—forgive the pun—”coming down the road.”

Jungwirth agreed: “The amount of change in the next ten years will be greater than in the past 100. We’re in this building until 2025. We needed to future proof,” he said.

They’ve done it by creating a workspace that adapts to the employees; not the other way around. It’s exactly what they’re working towards in the space on their cars of the future.

“What this space does so successfully is creating that emotional connection, that atmosphere,” said O’Neill. “It’s remarkable. Mercedes’ vision of the car matches their vision of the future of the workplace.”

A special thank you to Jillian Erhardt for her graphics work on the case study PDF, and to Lost Note Productions‘ Jason Cheung for his work on the video.

Work Design NOW 2014 was sponsored by Haworth.

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