In around 2012, Cake was still in the same converted cotton mill in Manchester that we’d started out in. It was ideal from a travel perspective, from a cost perspective and gave us the ability to move into a new office as the size of the team changed. We had moved to various offices within the building as we’d grown and by 2012 we were in the ground floor office. We had about 17 staff at that time and we were beginning to outgrow that office too.
At the other end of the mill was an opportunity for a much larger office space of 4,500 sq ft, which for 17 people is ridiculously large. However, we felt that it was an opportunity to build an office that was fit for our future and that represented our culture. When we first looked at this space, it was like an office out of the 1980s that needed not just updating, but a complete refit.
There are various ways you can approach this, one of which is to hire a professional interior designer, and we did talk to a couple, but in the end, we decided that we would design our office ourselves. Money wasn’t the overriding factor in this decision, it was more that we believed we were in the best position to think about how the office would work because we had built the culture and the company and we knew it better than anyone else. We were confident that we could design something that not only looked good, but that also represented the culture and facilitated that culture. I’ll explain the thinking behind this in the rest of this blog.
Tell your story through your office
We took a gamble and designed our office ourselves, rather than using a professional service, but it was one that really paid off. The measure of that was whenever we showed people around the office after we had finished it, we were telling the story of the company. It was never just an office tour, it was the perfect way to not only show people our workspace but also to talk to them about our ethos and culture, which was represented in the way that we thought about the office.
By walking people around the office and explaining the layout, it taught them a lot about our thinking and the reason why we did certain things. This became a really nice story and I think everyone who walked around was impressed because they would arrive at our office which wasn’t really in the nicest area of Manchester and just looked like an old cotton mill from the outside and then they would walk into this really modern, forward-thinking environment.
Our office wasn’t flashy – we didn’t have a slide in the middle of it, or beanbags all over the place, or a foosball table – but it was incredibly well thought out from a creative and practical point of view.
One of the things we did was think about how we could create a space that would encourage collaboration. This was really important to what we did, because we would usually have small teams of around seven people working on the average project. We might have several teams on the project, or it might only be one team on a project, but we always made sure that the whole team sat together.
That meant that whenever we started a new project, we would move people around the office. No one had their own desk per se, but what we did give everyone was a set of drawers on wheels. That meant when you moved desks, you could wheel your drawers to your new desk and still have everything that you needed in one place. This also helped to keep all the desks tidy. Projects lasted for different lengths of time. Some might only be three months long, others could be 18 months or even two years long, depending on what we were doing. The reason we encouraged everyone to sit with their teammates was to encourage collaboration. Everything we did was based on collaboration.
When you keep teams together it’s just easier to turn around and tap your teammate on the shoulder and ask them a question, rather than having to walk to the other side of the office.
We also wanted to make sure people had space to be creative and do what they needed to. That meant there were different areas of the office that you could go to depending on your mood and what you were trying to achieve. If you wanted somewhere quiet we had offices where you could shut the doors. We had less formal areas where you could go and sit on a sofa to work, there were places where you could have some self-thinking time for creativity, and there were spaces where you could collaborate.
The idea was that you could move to different areas of the office depending on where your mood took you. There were quiet areas and there were social areas. So, if you were in the quiet area you could stick your headphones on, listen to your background music and concentrate on what you were doing. Some of our engineers were working on really complex stuff and just needed that quiet space to concentrate for a while. But it was also really important to us that there were spaces where we could all go when we needed a break from that deep concentration, whether that was to get a cup of coffee, sit in the canteen and have some lunch, or go for a walk. We wanted to allow everyone to do whatever they needed to free up their minds and then go back to whatever they were doing at that point in time.
We also made sure that there were plenty of meeting rooms. Not having enough meeting rooms is often a problem in many offices, and I’m sure it’s one you can relate to. We didn’t want people to need to wait three weeks to arrange a meeting. At the Cake office, if you wanted to arrange a meeting in a couple of hours’ time, you could book a meeting room and it would be available.
Encouraging communication, collaboration and creativity
One of the most important features in our office was dry whiteboards. We put them everywhere. They were nicely branded, good quality, glass dry whiteboards. We had two or three in every meeting room, we had some around the open office space on stands that people could wheel to where they were if they needed to just huddle around one where they were sitting. All the glass partitions in our meeting rooms could be used as dry whiteboards too. So you could scribble on the walls and then just wipe it off when you had finished. That was a deliberate part of our thinking when we were designing the office.
We also had a glass dry-wipe table in what we called the boardroom. We got the largest dry-wipe board we could buy and put it on top of an IKEA table frame. This table could seat 12 to 15 people and you could use it as a table, but because it was a dry-wipe board you could scribble all over it, write down ideas here as well as on the whiteboards around the rest of the room and be really creative and collaborative in that space.
Simple steps that make a big difference
Although we weren’t really strict about keeping the office tidy, we did encourage people to have clean desks. We did that in a few ways, I’ve already mentioned the drawers that each person had, but we also did simple things like ensuring there was plenty of locker space available.
The two main reasons we promoted clean office space were that, firstly, we found that a clean office is just a better environment for everyone to work in. Secondly, when clients come and visit, it’s important that everything looks organised, professional, clean and tidy.
We also thought about providing secure bike storage for everyone. As I said before, we weren’t in the nicest area of Manchester and you probably wouldn’t want to leave your bike outside for a long period of time, so we built a space for people to store their bikes in the office where they would be safe and dry. We wanted to encourage people to cycle because it’s healthy and environmentally friendly.
Another very simple consideration was just making sure there were lots of toilets. We also set up a separate place to eat and we encouraged people not to eat at their desks. Instead, we would encourage them to go out for lunch, or go to the canteen and sit down, have a break and socialise with their colleagues or friends. The idea being that when they came back to the office they’d be able to get back to work and concentrate on what they needed to do.
I’ve also mentioned that we had some couches in the office so that people had somewhere comfortable to sit if they wanted to. But we also had standing desks. We bought a number of these second-hand from a client who was selling them and we positioned them strategically around the office. That meant that if people weren’t sitting at a desk that had the ability to raise and lower, they could go to an empty one around the office if they wanted to stand up for two or three hours while they were working. These were really well used.
Our office featured a lot of glass, some of it was frosted to give a degree of privacy, but this meant that there was plenty of light coming in.
Sharing our process
One final point that I’d like to mention in relation to our office design is how we shared our process. At Cake we had a very well defined and thought out process for building software. This became a key differentiator for us and it was something that our customers liked. The engineering team also liked it. This process wasn’t rigid, but it was an important part of the ethos and culture at Cake. I’d like to say that I had nothing to do with creating this process. We put a team of five of the engineering team together who spoke to their colleagues and put the process together over a three week period. The process was a live document which was refined as required on an ongoing basis as technology changed and our thinking changed. That said, the main crux of the process remained the same over many years.
In this office, we had the process printed on perspex and hung it on the wall so that everybody could see it. The idea being that whether people were experienced existing team members or new staff in the office, everyone had a reminder of exactly how we did things and that kept everybody on the same page. This process was about collaborating really closely with our clients, making sure that communication channels were good and ensuring we were doing things in the right order with the right people involved at the right time.
This process was flexible and from time to time there were minor changes to it, so we did our best to keep the perspex versions on the walls up to date.
This was also combined with a flexible working from home policy, which I felt worked really well. The process helped make this policy work efficiently. We adopted a hybrid model where people could work from home if they wanted to, but they were also encouraged to come into the office and work with their team and it was the team who decided when people could work from home. That gave everyone the flexibility to work from home if they were expecting a delivery, or had a doctor’s appointment, or just wanted to have a day or two a week where they didn’t have to commute. But it also meant that our teams were able to collaborate effectively because there were periods where they were working in the same space together in the office.
Time for coffee?
I remember going to a high growth forum at Lord’s Cricket Club, where I spent a day listening to eight entrepreneurs and CEOs talking about either having taken their company through a really high-growth period and then selling the business or their experiences of being in a high-growth period at that time. There was one common denominator across all of their talks: coffee. It was literally mentioned in all eight talks!
This was what I took away from that forum; that coffee was a focal point in the office and if you invested in a decent area for people to relax, socialise and even have informal chats among teams where they could also get good coffee, that was beneficial.
I would say that it was a great investment of ours and we created quite a sizable space where you could get good-quality, freshly ground coffee. We had a couple of sofas in this space, as well as a big kitchen work surface in the middle with bar stools where people could sit. Of course, there were several dry whiteboards in here too, as well as a TV.
It was a cool area where you could go and chill out, or have a bit of a creative or informal chat with colleagues. Often we also sat down with clients in here and had a chat, because from our ‘coffee shop’ you could see the whole office. This kind of space worked really well for us and I would recommend creating a similar space in your office to encourage creativity, communication and collaboration.
Remember the three Cs
We built an office space we were really proud of, which had lots of light, different areas for different things, plenty of meeting rooms and lots of dry whiteboards. But all of this stemmed from our focus on the three Cs: communication, creativity and collaboration.