GoCanvas CEO James Quigley has created a relaxed work environment that promotes empathy to foster innovation and collaboration.
Bob Fox: Tell us a bit about GoCanvas.
James Quigley: Were a digital platform that resides in the cloud that allows organizations to automate from simple to more complex business processes that might have normally started out on paper – invoices, work orders, inspections, check lists. It allows you to automate in a mobile fashion without having to custom create any software. It automates how you collect information, how you share information, and empowers you learn something about your business because you’ve done that. We support some 70,000+ paid subscribers, predominately by small to medium businesses but a whole host of Fortune 500 companies as well, in 72 countries, though our two physical office locations are in Sydney, Australia and Reston, Virginia.
What kind of work is being done here in the office?
A good healthy percentage of what we do here, and especially in our remote locations, is sales and business development work. The average age of our sales force is 24 years old. Our young staff usually comes to us right out of college. There’s a healthy chunk of staff focused on the customer base including sales and customer success. The three other groups include product and software development, with most located in Virginia but with some in India, and our lead marketing group.
Can you describe the office culture? How do people work together?
We were talking about culture long before everyone started talking about it! When you walk in the front door, you see a Peter Drucker quote that reads: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We believe that culture is so important because of what I’ve learned from past failed startups and a couple of successful ones. I’ve learned as much from the bad ones as I have from the good ones. We’re extremely focused on our values, but we don’t have them written on our walls by our meeting rooms, we live and breathe them –they are baked into the design of the space and how we interact. We measure the effectiveness of this weekly using tools that take the cultural temperature of the organization. We’re also a big believer that the tropes for what is startup culture, is not really culture at all. Culture is more than ping-pong tables and free food. If you understand the biomechanics and the social structure of what culture is. We focus on stoking innovation and engaging the part of the brain that inspires fun, innovation and creativity. Our open office concept helps us achieve this.
The way we work together utilizes a mix of close and loose controls on collaboration. You can have too much collaboration and then work won’t happen, but there’s no success if you don’t collaborate enough. Innovation needs to come not just from me, but from the people solving the problems on the front line. We intentionally create an environment that inspires even our most junior people to act innovatively. Through this environment, and intentionally creating collisions with other companies, stakeholders and non-profits we continue to inspire and teach empathy; because as we see it, empathy is the currency of innovation.
What have you done intentionally to capture or reflect the culture in the physical space?
We spent about nine months perfecting what we became the layout for the GoCanvas space to reflect our culture. Of course, once we were physically in the space we found out that we weren’t quite there, and iterated it anyway. Some of the key things that we kept in mind when laying out the space were that if you aren’t able to see someone from your desk, you are not likely to collaborate with them. The GoCanvas space is a giant open area and you are able to see from one end to the other from everywhere. There’s a few breaks in the workspace for more private jobs such as payroll and the finance team. Mapping out where the teams are based was also taken into consideration. We made sure that the teams who collaborated the most were adjacent to each other. We added a nook later to provide some separation from the din of the space, at the request of the team. We found we needed an additional informal space to be productive and creative. This is additional to myriad of meeting rooms of different sizes and shapes based on the interactions that are likely to happen there. We favor round tables in our meeting rooms to support collaboration. They also remove the head of the table which encourages everyone to participate and helps teams get into rapport more quickly. Then there are rooms that have couches instead of chairs and tables. They create a more relaxed domestic feel and allows people to sit side by side as opposed to across a table from one another. This again puts everyone on the same page and makes them feel like they are collaborating together as opposed to waiting for their team lead to tell them what to do. The overall design choices were about empathy, innovation and collaboration.
Was there an overarching goal for the design of the space?
The two things that were top of mind when we designed the space were innovation and collaboration. Both of those things require deeply engaged people. To facilitate those cultural processes, the space needs to feel relaxed and promote empathy, trust, collaboration, and play which leads in turn to creativity and innovation. There needed to be enough space to allow people to put that into practice and get some work done.
How do people share their work and build ideas?
Each team does this differently. Slack and other online platforms are ways that we build and iterate on ideas. We also have lots of white boards – in a previous iteration of the space, we had a 24-foot long hallway that was entirely covered in white boards and was in use on a daily basis. We tried to put as many white boards around the office as we could because collaboration could happen any time.
How is the space helping to achieve your goals?
Our co-working space, Refraction has really helped with this. We actually started in a co-working space. It was someone’s townhouse being used as a co-working space! During that time, we purchased a phone system from one of the other companies in the co-working space for our sales person. We also met a company that helped us implement a chat system in three days as opposed to our two-year plan, all because of the spontaneous collaboration co-working facilitated with other companies.
We also found that with our sales team and new employees get up to speed faster when working with others. We considered allowing sales people to work from home but have found that initial training needs are reduced, and productivity and impact increases when new team members are surrounded by their team.
It sounds like there are a lot of things that you’re doing to encourage innovation. Are there any particular places in this space that are better suited for innovation?
There are two such specific spaces in the office. We only have two rooms with reclining chairs, and only three rooms with a rectangular shaped table. The reason we didn’t put reclining chairs in most meeting rooms is because if you can recline, the physical action of reclining mimics the posture people typically adopt when they disengage, and as such it can inadvertently disengage team members. We wanted iteration meetings to be held in spaces to create healthy debate, therefore the rooms used for iteration meetings have comfortable reclining chairs like our board room where you can meet for hours at a time until you get the right answer. We also have some tall tables around space – in the kitchen, lobby, and we encourage people to use them without stools. When you’re standing, you’re more likely to brainstorm. And if you go to that space without your laptop or notebook, you’re also less territorial and more likely to bounce ideas around freely. Both of the spaces are very different but are important and frequently used.
Do you curate the companies that work in your co-working space?
Yes –we do some simple things to curate the co-working space. We try to reduce the number of service led organizations who are trying to sell to each other. There are very few of those, but still some. We try to curate for cultural fit – meaning people who are willing to invest and engage in the community. Refraction is suited for fast-growing companies, as these companies expand, and ultimately move out, there’s always a constant flow of new organizations who are ‘refracting’. They’re changing direction and growing.
Your space has a unique style – is there something in the spaces that communicates who GoCanvas and Refractions are?
We made strategic decisions about Refraction early on knowing that it had to serve GoCanvas and also had to serve this growing population of technology companies. The black and white palette was a strategic choice as they are a neutral palate. No companies logo will clash with that palette, and it looks clean, modern, minimalist, and impactful all at once. There were some choices in the current iteration of the office, where we used the structure and flooring of the space to help indicate what was to happen in different spaces. Meeting rooms have grey carpet squares, which are also found in the Refraction space. There are wood floors in the more open, collaborative spaces like the kitchen, lobby, and event space. In some spaces elements such as cork and wood, building materials, are a nod to GoCanvas to acknowledge that we are always building. If you visit a Google office, everything is perfectly put together. At Facebook, they have parts that are very polished, but also some that are unfinished. Rumor has it that this was done very consciously, so that people didn’t think the space was done. It encouraged people to think that their finger prints can shape and be left on the company. We’ve used this idea in our space too, in that you’ll won’t find a branded wall in the GoCanvas space because we never finished it. The meaning behind the name GoCanvas is that you can create something on a blank canvas – we’re a tool used by people who are building or delivering services, we see our space the same way.
Where are you most willing to spend money on your space?
We are willing to spend money on things that allow for people to feel the key components of culture and for people to be able to communicate their message. Our culture is represented well in the kitchen area where we spend a lot on food. We also invested a lot into our event space as we use it to host events, including product releases, and also collaborate as a team for breakfasts, lunches, etc.
Where do you get the most value from your workplace?
The space that adds the most to who we are as a culture is without a doubt our kitchen and event space. If we took them away, we would have the most negative reactions from our team. When we were designing the space, we did Skype sessions with offices in Scandinavia. One thing we noticed was the Scandinavian tradition to have the entrance via the kitchen. They say that the kitchen is the heart of the home and it changes the nature of the interactions that happen when you enter through the kitchen. I think this is true, especially for us – to have people enter through the kitchen and interact together in what’s effectively our communal living room. This is a core pillar to keep our culture alive.
What metrics do you look at to measure culture in the office?
We use a company called officevibe, which is the best at measuring engagement. They send out weekly five-question surveys and will prompt you if you select strongly agree to disagree in response to questions on engagement and culture. It’s entirely anonymous, but we can engage in an anonymous conversation afterwards. The real brilliance of the platform is that the questions are randomized – employees are unlikely to get the same question twice in six months. While taking the pulse of the environment, it provides scatter graphs of the results and when we compile them, it tells us how well our culture is thriving or struggling in different areas. This platform creates open dialogue with everyone each week where we can really get the answers to how they feel about the culture, how it impacts their work, and if what we’re doing is working and meeting their needs.
What metrics do you use to measure how the space is doing?
We have a room booking platform and every four to six months we download the data to look at the utilization of rooms and who is doing what, where. It shows us if there is any bookable spaces within the office that are under-utilized. This data is valuable, as when something is not being used it is really an opportunity to improve it. An example is when our product management team leaders were spending 43 hours per week in meeting rooms. We tallied up the time it was taking them to book meeting rooms and move from one to another and set up. We found that we were making them less productive by the way they were using the space. We decided to give them their own meeting room by taking it off the booking calendar and saw tremendous gains in their productivity. We also repurposed an underused meeting room and made it into a testing lab, that further improved innovation.