LinkedIn has had a generous return-to-the-office policy since the end of the pandemic. Companies like Apple have battled employees, sometimes publicly, but LinkedIn has kept a consistently softer tone. Part of this may be because the professional social media network has benefited from the pandemic-induced shift in working patterns. LinkedIn has become an essential connectivity platform for remote-job-hungry employees and, like its parent company Microsoft, conducts extensive research on the workplace.
When LinkedIn planned to redesign its headquarters office in Silicon Valley, the pandemic gave it an impromptu lesson in the “agile working” it likes to write about and offer paid courses for. The redesign of the $323 million HQ in Sunnyvale, California, was slated to finish in April 2020. The structure is one of three new buildings on LinkedIn’s 29-acre campus and, in the words of one of the architects, essentially the campus’ “front door.” LinkedIn was deep in the design of the office with architecture firm NBBJ and hit the pause button after the pandemic essentially paused the world. The exterior of the building was already nearly finished, so they turned their attention to the inside.
Pre-pandemic, the plans were straightforward. How many people they could fit in the headquarters was the primary consideration. But now that remote work dominated conversations, a more conventional office looked misguided. Designing a headquarters for more than 1,000 employees who may be working from home most of the time forced a quick pivot. Since they couldn’t forecast how much time people would be in the office, the design focused on offering as many options for employees to work as possible. And thus, LinkedIn’s HQ hybrid office redesign began, an experiment they’re still working on.
Entering the matrix
The initial design called for 1,080 individual desks, but the redesign cut that nearly in half. The individual desks were replaced with a range of solo and collaborative workspaces, from private rooms to co-working spaces to meeting rooms that could open and close with sliding whiteboard walls. LinkedIn’s office space used to comprise about 70 percent desks and 30 percent meetings or open space. They said those percentages have now flip-flopped.
NBBJ, the architecture firm, made most of its design decisions based on what it calls a “postures matrix.” It’s a technique that guides room layout and furniture choices based on the time spent in the space, what kind of work is done there and the employees’ ergonomic needs. For example, a table intended for half an hour doesn’t need the same ergonomic support as a desk used for eight hours. The postures matrix helped determine where different types of workspaces should go. The underlying concept of the office is that right past the front door is the most social part of the building, and the further you go and to the edges, the workspaces become quieter and more private. The designers used the matrix to tell them how to plan the place, what settings would be closest to the elevators, and what would be furthest from the lobby. The most social spaces are on the ground floor of the six-story, 250,000-square-foot office, including co-working spaces, a cafeteria, and a coffee shop. Areas for heads-down work become more numerous the further up you go on each floor.
The design team’s strategy was to develop as many postures and seating types as possible. Because of the shift to remote work, the design team didn’t know how many people would be in the office at a given time. So, they used the matrix to develop about 65 different settings, such as areas for focused and individual work, social spaces, and collaboration.
LinkedIn’s workforce is about 80 percent engineers and 20 percent other job functions. The matrix was used to support the needs of the engineers, who are typically coding and managing the website and need areas to focus on. But LinkedIn also wanted to design the office in a way that would encourage the engineers to collaborate and interact more. A solution for this was how spaces were placed in proximity to each other, such as individual workstations next to food and beverage areas. The design team figured this would spark more activity throughout the day, increasing the likelihood that employees would cross paths with each other.
Flexing design muscles
LinkedIn used five basic design ideas for inside the office: neighborhoods, redesigned meeting spaces, flex zones, deep focus areas, and cafes. Neighborhoods are varied workspaces grouped together for one team. A neighborhood for a team of 20 may not have 20 individual desks, but it’ll at least have 20 places to work. If someone wants an assigned desk, they get it, but the neighborhoods can be adapted to suit each team’s needs. The open-space layout, which many are already familiar with, is designed for collaboration.
Meeting spaces were designed to feel like a hotel lounge, minus the strangers wandering around, with an emphasis on collaborative technology. The cameras point toward the whiteboard to de-emphasize the hierarchy between remote and in-office employees and emphasize collaboration. LinkedIn stocks meeting rooms with monitors on wheels, digital whiteboards, and plenty of cameras and microphones. They say the goal is for the tech to be so good that “you’ll look back on your last meeting and not be able to recall which teammates were in the office and which were not.” This is an outlandish statement, but a tech company in Silicon Valley may be able to pull it off.
The headquarters also has flex zones designed for group-working sessions. They’re decked out with movable whiteboard walls with digital capture tech designed for brainstorming. The flex zones are easy to reconfigure. Teams can use the space however they want, then it can be cleared and re-used by another group. The flex zone idea was new to NBBJ, the architecture firm. They wanted to create spaces that were easily customizable and could address changing work needs without the use of permanent installations.
Deep focus areas are for heads-down work. Designed like libraries, they’re intended for those who don’t have a quiet zone at home or want a retreat from all the collaborative spaces. Bookshelves and biophilia elements reinforce a sense of calmness and a place to reflect and do “deep work.” Gensler designed these areas for the LinkedIn HQ, along with all the deep focus areas across LinkedIn’s office portfolio.
Deep focus areas are something that occupiers are concentrating on in new office designs, and Gensler says many of their clients are asking for them. The well-documented effects of distractions in open office layouts that impact productivity are behind the trend of quieter areas. Privacy booths are one option, and so are “focus rooms.” Focus rooms are designed like pods, about 144 total square feet, with acoustical and visual privacy to support solo work.
Lastly, there are the two bustling on-site cafes at LinkedIn’s HQ, which were historically only used for three hours daily during mealtimes but got a major redesign. As LinkedIn says, the cafes aren’t just about calories, they’re about connections. The music is kept on throughout the day to nudge people to meet up there more, along with a menu of snacks and drinks, table reservations, and computer monitors. LinkedIn is experimenting with offering food throughout the day in the cafes. They are also set up so the seating can easily be broken up into smaller spaces or enlarged for bigger team events.
It’s evolution, baby
From what LinkedIn can tell so far, the HQ redesign has enticed workers to come in. On an average day, more than 60 percent of employees who work in other areas of LinkedIn’s campus come to the new building. LinkedIn employees also overwhelmingly agree with the hybrid policy. In an internal survey, 87 percent of its 16,000 global workers said they’d still like to come to the office at least part-time. This is one reason LinkedIn says it still plans to invest in physical office space, even if it slows down the pace of new leases.
The company regularly collects data on how the spaces are used and intends to change them as needs change. Like its liberal hybrid work policy, LinkedIn seems invested in the idea of employee choice and flexibility, and it’s reflected in the HQ design. “If employees come in and they do their best work sitting in a co-working space where there’s background noise, and they see people going by, great, we’ve got a place for that,” said Lisa Britz, LinkedIn’s Director of Workplace Design. “If they do their best work in a super quiet, deep space where nobody looks at them, we have places to really support that type of work also.”
LinkedIn has plenty of cash to spend on lavish, innovative hybrid office designs like this. It’s the world’s biggest professional social media network and a subsidiary of Microsoft, a tech behemoth with a market cap of $1.79 trillion. Microsoft has deep pockets, even if it did recently announce layoffs of 10,000 employees (roughly 5 percent of its workforce). LinkedIn’s revenue in the fourth quarter of 2022 increased 26 percent year-over-year, and it saw record levels of engagement among its more than 850 million members. As much as some occupiers may want to, many don’t have the resources to afford redesigns like this.
The pandemic changed the expectations of LinkedIn employees, so the office had to change with it. The company learned through its research and internal surveys that employee productivity shot up when workers felt more of a sense of personal agency. That’s why the HQ office was re-designed to offer a large variety of options in settings and ways to work. Working parents may need the office to get away from distractions at home, so deep focus areas are essential. Younger employees were looking for more social interaction after what seemed an endless period of social distancing, so buzzy cafes were welcome.
LinkedIn has also made clear that the HQ office design is a work in progress. They continue to collect data via sensors on which spaces are used most often, and they say they’ll adjust accordingly based on employee needs and preferences. LinkedIn also encourages constant feedback from workers in focus groups, interviews, and surveys on what they like and dislike. “We know we haven’t gotten everything right, and we don’t expect everything to work as planned — the key is to ask why, tweak the design, and then test again,” LinkedIn’s Lisa Britz recently said.
At its core, hybrid work is a compromise. Executives want the innovation and creativity that comes from in-office work, and employees want the choice of working wherever they want. LinkedIn’s hybrid office redesign offers some ideas to occupiers, but there’s no template. Every office designed for hybrid will be different based on the company. What works for LinkedIn may fail spectacularly for other companies. One aspect LinkedIn has gotten right is that hybrid offices must constantly evolve. As companies change, the layout of the office should change with it. LinkedIn’s hybrid office redesign may look like the gold standard, but a few years from now, it could be as antiquated as the open office that occupiers used to love so much.