In this new series, we’re interviewing CEOs to find out how their workplaces support their business goals.
We show you a lot of projects and we share a lot of insights, but at the end of the day, we still want to know more about how business leaders value their workplaces, and how well the design of their spaces connects with their organization’s long term goals. Thus, we’re excited to debut this new series, “CEOs Talk Workplace”. First up: Timothy Chi, the CEO of WeddingWire — a technology company that serves the $200+ billion wedding industry by connecting engaged couples with wedding providers — talks to our founder, Bob Fox, about the company’s Chevy Chase, Md. headquarters.
Bob Fox: You’re a business leader with a vision. As you’re trying to drive your company, where do you see the most value coming from your workplace?
Timothy Chi: Since we’re an online technology company, we primarily are not a client-facing organization. So when it comes to workplace design, we’re really designing with [only our] team in mind.
We’re an online marketplace seeking to connect engaged couples with wedding providers— and because of that, and our business model, about 50 percent of employee head count is sales or sales-related. [Ed. note: In total, WeddingWire has about 850 employees worldwide.]
That must give you a lot of insight in terms of what you’re trying to do and how you focus your people.
It’s important to us that we design the workplace to meet the needs and the demographic of the employees. It’s nothing fancy: we went all benching, all open — not because it’s trendy, but because it works for our team.
Tell us about the demographic of your employees.
We’re heavy mid- to late-20s, primarily millennials as well as some 30-somethings — for our sales team, we are able to recruit straight from college and train them.
There are a couple of things we’ve noticed that our team values:
One, in everything that we do, we think about it in terms of an opportunity to learn and grow — in sales, pairing people next to each other is an opportunity to build skills by listening to each other. We have a large open café space where we bring in a speaker once a month. We’ve had chefs, journalists, professional sports team owners, and so on. We find that everyone enjoys hearing about other peoples’ journeys and what they’ve learned in their careers.
Number two, another thing about our group is that they’re really socially responsible. They really like to give back to the community. Not strictly financially, but in terms of time. So we have a Giving Committee which is super active. We’ve created spaces within the office [that reflect this] —I’m actually sitting behind our Giving Tree right now. Somebody painted a tree in our lobby and they attach paper leaves to represent each community event they’ve participated in.
Third, our culture is really organic. I don’t even think there’s a formal rule about putting stuff on the wall; it’s not so programmed, we go with the flow and people find enjoyment in that.
It sounds like you’ve got a lot of people sharing ideas and expressing themselves. In that sales culture — and maybe it is by allowing people to express themselves in that environment — but is there any way you’ve used the space as a tool in terms of driving the business forward?
I feel like one of the benefits of the way our space is designed, we don’t have to think about whether or not HR is here or finance is there; we have people shifting around all the time, and it works for us because sometimes people need sit together by function, and sometimes they need to sit together by project. So, flexibility in our seating plan creates a sense that they have the freedom to make the space their own, but everything can change to fit our needs at any time.
So is it completely unassigned?
No, they’re assigned, but temporarily. We encourage people to think about a better way to organize themselves together and we do have quite a bit of shifting around quite often. One downside is that I often don’t know where people sit — which is why wayfinding is so important!
You mentioned bringing in young people right out of school and training them. How does that work in your space?
We dedicate a conference room and we have four people that own sales training. They spend a lot of time — the first two or three weeks — on onboarding and training.
Then it seems like a lot of learning and development happens on the floor, out in the benching where employees are constantly moving around, sitting by other colleagues?
Exactly. There’s a lot of other learning and skill development in our everyday interactions.
Tell us more about the sales culture.
First of all, you have the open floor plate design. People really love it. We have a bunch of hungry, enthusiastic folks being really energized about what they do. While the atmosphere is important, the way the sales organization is managed is, as well. We promote a culture of transparency and performance. So we have TVs around the sales floor — they post funny pictures, they highlight wins, and celebrate our team.
So there’s a visible celebration of success?
Absolutely. Every month, if you hit your goal, depending on the month, managers will coordinate and hang something over your desk so there’s visual reinforcement that you’ve achieved your goal, which is a big accomplishment.
In terms of attracting talent, do you use your space for that?
Yes. Right now our amenity situation is pretty unique. We have two floors, one floor we’ve built out entirely, and getting ready to do the second floor the way we want it. Right now we have a speakeasy, which is a bar area, a room with massage chairs, there’s an arcade with two or three standup machines, and coffee stations placed strategically throughout the office. Also, we love hosting events in our space, and often host third party association or meetups. It’s great for our employees and the community, but it’s also a great recruiting opportunity and helps us to build our brand.
For food and beverage, we have Monumental Vending throughout the office — it’s been an enormous hit. It’s an honor system “grab and go” concept that allows the company to subsidize any of the items. At WeddingWire, we want to encourage healthy lifestyles, so we subsidize healthy foods and drinks. If you want M&M’s, though, you pay regular price for that.
In terms of how you budget money for the space, where are you most willing to spend?
Great question. Broadly speaking, I’d really focus on amenity space for staff, and everything else I’d keep relatively simple and easy. So whether that’s a new arcade or recreation area or multipurpose room, both from a cost and design perspective, we really want something that stands out, that’s unique.
How do most people react to the space when they first see it?
They say, “Wow, this space has a lot of energy, there’s a buzz.”
If I were to walk into your space today what would I experience, would I have a sense about your business from looking at the space?
No, you would not know at all. Again, the space is built in such a way that you could almost plug in any company right now and hopefully people have fun and enjoy it.
What’s the story I would tell to my wife when I go home?
Right now we’re really thrilled when they say, “Wow, can I work here? This is so awesome.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.