Hi, tech: WillowTree’s new office promotes a friendlier workday

The new office of WillowTree Apps boasts bright colors and spots for gathering, both of which feature prominently in the kitchen/bar area. Photo: Stephen Barling The new office of WillowTree Apps boasts bright colors and spots for gathering, both of which feature prominently in the kitchen/bar area. Photo: Stephen Barling

It used to be the place to perform a tree pose in a superheated room. Now, the one-time Bikram Yoga studio on Fifth Street SE is home to a very different kind of workout—the mental gymnastics of the techies at WillowTree Apps.

As a fast-growing firm that creates mobile and TV-integrated apps for clients such as GE, PepsiCo and AOL, WillowTree has already outgrown several offices since it launched in 2010. Its most recent expansion allowed it to take over the former yoga spot downstairs from an office it was already using. Even though close to 90 employees work at this location, “The mission wasn’t to cram more desks in,” says Chief Experience Officer Blake Sirach.

Rather, the company wanted to create “opportunities for people to escape their desks,” Sirach explains. WillowTree’s corporate culture—aided by architect Ted Nelson’s design—encourages workers to collaborate, be social and seek the state of “flow” that results in the most inspired, productive and satisfying work.

So, for example, if you’re a WillowTree designer struggling with a tricky problem, you can head downstairs and into one of 10 “booths”—closet-sized rooms with padded seats, doors that close and even occupancy lights that let coworkers know you’re in there. As long as your light is on, no one will bother you. “They’re pretty popular,” says Sirach. “In the early afternoon, they’re usually all booked.”

Or, if it’s company you crave, you can camp out with your laptop in the kitchen/bar area and see who stops by. Socialization is seen as productive here, so there are various places on both floors for people to spontaneously assemble, including a lounge with an electronic drum kit and a long bar-height table that Sirach says invites workers to gather around a work in progress.

The office promotes collaboration more formally in “workpods,” which are like oversized cubicles where small teams can temporarily share a home base. “Those project teams are on projects for six months or a year; they’re all co-located in this micro space,” says Sirach.

Befitting the company demographic, which—as you’d expect—skews young and hip, Nelson gave this space a modern vibe. Its concrete floors and white walls get a dose of warmth from glimpses of bright color (like the yellow metal barstools in the kitchen) and swaths of reclaimed wood. At the entrance, a dropped ceiling of white wallboard forms a canopy that’s punctured here and there by elongated rectangles of boldly colored glass. Sirach could be speaking about the entire office design when he describes the process of choosing the colors for that glass: “We didn’t want it to look like a play school, but to bring energy to the space.”

Just as in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, the company looks to balance its employees’ tech-focused, screen-dependent experiences with more physical, tactile moments. A growing library of books—yep, that ancient technology!—provides workers “a chance to enhance their skills away from a screen,” says Sirach.

And in a hallway near a bathroom, Post-it notes on a bulletin board constitute a virtual meeting, allowing anyone to contribute ideas to an ongoing project. “Instead of setting up a meeting or taking time away from somebody’s day,” Sirach says, “we want it to be informal and fleeting.”

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