Friday, September 4, 2015

Dogs and beer

For the last week I've been training to be a Kiva Fellow at Kiva headquarters in San Francisco.  There's a lot to be said about Kiva, and its Fellows program, but for now I want to focus on their office, which validates many of the seemingly outlandish claims I'd heard about Silicon Valley work environments being more like Montessori classrooms than offices.  Coming as I do from a tradition-bound Anglophillic prep school, this is both shocking and refreshing.

There are no walls--at least no permanent ones.  The large, high-ceilinged workspace, with exposed heating ducts, concrete floors, and an "industrial" aesthetic, creates subdivisions only with sliding doors, curved plywood partial partitions, desks and other furniture, and shower curtains.  Given that some 100 people are intently manning computer workstations and collaborating in various sub-groups, the noise level is surprisingly low.

Flexible seating

There are no individual desks.  People seem to have designated spots, but they're all at common tables shared by six or more co-workers, and people move around a lot, from big low rectangular tables to big high rectangular tables to small round high tables to small round low tables to couches to stools to chairs to Yoga balls.
The revolution will not be leashed

If there's any hierarchy, I can't see it.  Regional managers, who are pretty close to the top of the Kiva "food chain," sit next to interns, and Fellows, mere volunteers, are allowed to wander at will.  The corporate counsel, a tall, bright-faced woman of barely 30, looks more like an elementary school teacher than a lawyer.  The CEO, a rail-thin Swiss man of maybe 50, wears sneakers, jeans, and a button-down shirt, and could hardly be more self-effacing or casual.

Dogs are welcome; one cinnamon-pelted husky-heavy mutt wanders the office most days in search of willing Fetch partners or head-scratchers.

Let my people drink!
Both a keg and a dedicated beer fridge grace the closest thing to an auditorium, a semicircle of chairs facing a pull-down projection screen with a pair of incongruously old-school Klipsch speakers hooked up to wireless mikes and a giant computer monitor.  People wirelessly plug and unplug their laptops to this and any of several other oversized monitors whenever the need arises.  Macs and PCs, desktops and laptops, are all happily married.  Outlets are everywhere; a cluster of every known phone charging cable pokes through a hole in one of the lunch tables.

The kitchen would not satisfy a compulsive cleaner, but food is shared and dishes attended to with reasonable alacrity and thoroughness without any apparent supervision.  Though lunch becomes a lively social hour, eating at your desk, or in a small working group, is not uncommon.
Fussball, anyone?

Dress is very casual: on Monday, the president gave the closest we've come to a formal talk in jeans and a sport shirt, tails untucked.  The next day he sat down at lunch with whoever happened to be around.

The closest anything comes to a private room is an enclosure with one glass wall and a sliding door.  The only space without a glass wall is the "quiet work area," whose door never closes; looking a lot like an old-fashioned library, it features a life-size statue of Yoda.

May the force of innovation be with you

At the far opposite end of the space is a hammock room.
How's it hangin'?

About midway between is "Thunderdome," the largest discrete space apart from the "auditorium," where, in case the giant monitor proves inadequate, the long internal wall, painted green, can be written on like a whiteboard.

Don't fence me in

Kiva staffers seem universally peppy, and private conversations have confirmed that while the pay is low, work conditions are commensurately low-key.  Nonetheless, I can't believe that all this casualness comes without a price: 40 hours a week in front of a computer screen has a strong taint of drudgery, no matter how you package it, and nonprofits can be just as exploitative, in their own way, as any soulless corporation.  Being noise-averse, and working best alone, I might struggle to be productive or happy at Kiva.  Still, I wonder, if Kiva can accomplish so much with dogs and beer, why do the rest of us persist with neckties and closed doors?  Is it possible for work to be too cozy?

Rainbow of ideas


  1. Hmm...I love the dog and keg, but those perfectly lined up rows and columns of Post-Its gave me the creeps! And coming from NYC, my first thought on seeing the big, cushy couch was: "Ewww--bedbugs!!"

    Are there any windows besides the one by the hammock? Seeing no sign of any in the other photos was making me claustrophobic. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that looking out the window is a distraction, periodically gazing into the far distance reduces eye strain for computer users, and studies have shown that looking out at nature (not at views of man-made objects) reduces stress, thereby increasing one's ability to focus.

    Your qualms about productivity in this type of office are well-founded. I've heard complaints from friends who work in offices like this, read numerous articles, and listened to BBC programmes about how hard it is to hold meetings when there's no privacy, or to execute tasks requiring sustained concentration amid constant background noise and the assumption that you're always "in" (i.e. available to be interrupted by passing colleagues with questions, etc.) when there are no doors or partitions, and that "hot-desking", far from overcoming humans' instinctive desire and need for personal space, results instead in people going so far as coming in early to lay claim to their preferred patch of "communal" space. The enforced casualness may make people feel (or think they ought to feel) less irked by the amount of time it wastes, but when salaried staff who already spend more than 8 hours a day in the office (at least in NYC) end up having to come in after hours and/or take work home with them because they can't get anything done during business hours, it suggests the pendulum has swung too far away from structured space.

  2. What a curious adventure, Barbaro! One wonders if the Kiva home office will ultimately prove more exotic than your assigned destinations! As the educational institution we share in common puts great energy into (or at least pays lip-service towards) "innovation," have you found that Kiva's approach suggests a direction others should explore, or does it smack of affectation?