Zappos has a cubicle problem. The online retailer is famous for its fanatical devotion to both customer service and corporate "cultural fit," going so far as to pay insufficiently committed new hires as much as $2,000 to leave. The epicenter of this cult is the Zappos headquarters in suburban Las Vegas, where beneath the glitter and confetti piled on every surface (Zappos Family Core Value #4: "Create Fun and a Little Weirdness") in the name of boosting morale (#7: Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit) are vanilla cubicles that wouldn’t look out of place at Dunder Mifflin. Which would be fine, were it not for item #6 on the company’s list of prime directives: "Pursue Growth and Learning." Cubes are not exactly optimal for that.
Which is why the cubes will be cast aside when Zappos moves downtown this fall to new digs in the former City Hall after a $60 million renovation. In addition to his 10 core values guiding the company’s cultural evolution, Zappos founder Tony Hsieh has added three Cs: collision, community, and co-learning. Hsieh’s big bet is that exposing his employees to serendipity—within both the office and the city—will ultimately make them smarter, happier, and more productive. That means: no hiding behind partitions.
Zappos isn’t scheduled to start moving into City Hall until September, but in the meantime, the company’s merchandising and design teams have already moved downtown into two floors of temporary office space doubling as a testbed for Hsieh and his lieutenants to put their theories into practice. Here’s what the rest of Zappos’ 1,200 employees have to look forward to:
"The most important quality of this space is adaptability," says Zach Ware, Hsieh’s right-hand when it comes to planning the move. "Ceiling power-and-data was something we had a hunch about, and so we went to Facebook"—which instituted the practice first—"and they confirmed we weren’t crazy. We had to convince every architect and every fire inspector—who insisted it would be a mess—this was okay. So you’ll notice that nothing in this space is tied down," which means moving the desks of the resident merchandising, design, and creative teams is simple and constant.
The original cubicle—the Action Office II from Herman Miller—was later denounced by one of its designers as perfect for employers "looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies." But those cubes were spacious compared to the desks at Zappos’ downtown office, which offer just 70 square feet of personal space— barely a third of the industry standard. "We still have a responsibility to maximize our density," Ware says, and that means trading personal space for more common areas, ranging from pods of oversized, high-backed couches to communal tables strategically positioned between groups.
"That wouldn’t happen in Henderson," Ware says, pointing to one such table around which a gaggle of employees are eating cake. "I know for a fact that three or four different departments are represented there. They wouldn’t have collided if there wasn’t a space for doing that."
Zappos’ suburban campus is famous for its single set of doors—anyone leaving or returning from lunch is bound to run into a colleague. Downtown employees are spread across two floors, which—as decades of research by MIT’s Thomas Allen and others attest—means they might as well work in separate cities as far as seeing each other on a daily basis is concerned. Zappos’ kludge is simple but effective—employees must check in on one floor and forage for lunch on the other. It will keep them circulating until the company manages to build an internal stairwell.
Hsieh’s biggest bet is that Zappos has more to learn from smart people outside the company than inside it. To that end, Ware and a pair of colleagues plan to open this month the first of a trio of coworking spaces named Work in Progress, where employees might share desks—and tips— with the startups Hsieh is busy luring to Vegas. The company’s City Hall headquarters will open this fall with a free coworking space off the lobby, in hopes someone with the next billion-dollar idea just walks through the front door.