Walk into the offices of Michael Bloomberg — a work space designed for incidental contact and accidental creativity. To understand how it works, you have to see how it looks: close quarters, the best equipment, an elevator that stops on only one floor. As for the food … it’s free!
Planned pandemonium sideswipes you as you step of the elevator. The space at 499 Park Avenue that is home to Michael Bloomberg’s $650 million media empire, Bloomberg L.P., pulsates like the Times Square subway station at rush hour. People are swarming through the technology-crammed space, their faces rapt with deadline. “Grab something to eat,” shouts the young guy behind the reception desk, lifting a phone to each ear and gesturing toward what looks like a mall food court in the middle of the reception area. “It’s all free.”
Bloomberg himself materializes from behind a small desk in the newsroom, just a few feet away, with only a plate glass window for separation. Like everyone else in the place, he wears a photo ID around his neck, the first name large, the last name small — programmed for easy identification and instant conversation. “This place is great, isn’t it?” he asks, not bothering to wait for an answer. “It may seem like chaos, but every single thing that goes on here is carefully planned. Like an explosion.”
The 53-year-old entrepreneur has never been one to play by other people’s rules, and nothing better illustrates his contempt for conventional wisdom than the 50,000-square-foot office he has had installed on floors 11 through 17. The design is his answer to the current fascination with the virtual office. Bloomberg will have none of the hype that adman Jay Chiat and others spin about the 21st century workplace — a sleek, silent future where employees need only walk a few steps to their fully operational home offices, blissfully telecommute, and take meetings in deep cyberspace. Bloomberg’s vision of the office of the future incorporates the latest technology, but that’s where the similarity ends. And even that is put to a radically different purpose.
Instead of streamlined silence, the former securities trader who created his now legendary desktop terminal in 1981 with a $20 million settlement from Salomon Brothers (“They kicked me out on my ass,” he says with a smile) believes in noise and cataclysm. His theory is simple: shove lots of well-paid young upstarts (2,200 employees, average age 31) together in a small space for long hours, give them the best equipment possible, and you’ll get magic. “What I’m selling is information,” he says. “The best way to get it faster than anyone else is to create an environment of constant creativity. You have to turn up the volume, make people a little uncomfortable.”
With that formula as a guide, Bloomberg’s space is part Wall Street trading room, part newsroom, part fast-food emporium, all perpetual motion. To begin with, the elevators open on only one of the six floors he leases — the middle one. The idea is simple: every morning, every evening, everyone has to come through the same doors to get in and out of work. There will be interaction. Interaction will generate information sharing. Information sharing will generate new and better coverage. That’s how you build an empire.
Running up the spine of the space, connecting the Bloomberg floors, is a spiral staircase. But what looks like a staircase is actually a vertical meeting room. Bloombergers, passing on the stairs, nametags clearly visible, are apt to stop and compare notes before heading off in opposite directions. More information transfer.
Then there’s the food court. Set off by aquariums full of colorful tropical fish, the mini-mall offers everything from sodas to fresh fruit, cereal to candy bars. Bloomberg’s design purpose? “I want people to be well-fed and satisfied. I want them to be able to grab a cup of coffee with a colleague and hash things out,” he says. “But most of all I want them to stay here. I don’t want them leaving.”
The 2,800-square-foot newsroom holds an international news service as well as radio and TV networks. The average work space per employee is roughly 4-feet square — a purposefully tight squeeze. “I like to see people brimming over with ideas, all over the guy next to them,” Bloomberg says.
In one corner, a pair of TV anchors control their own cameras from a console in the desk in front of them. Across the room, a radio reporter uses a sound-dampening microphone to interview the stock analyst seated next to him; the reporter then programs the segment directly into the computer for broadcast an hour later. Newt Gingrich barely causes a stir as he crosses the room, headed for an in-studio interview with Charlie Rose, whose TV talk show originates from a glass booth in the technology-crammed broadcast space.
Admittedly, Bloomberg’s wild kingdom is not a prototype that other businesses should ape. But that’s just the point. Savvy strategic planners contemplating changes in their own office should take heed: don’t be seduced by other people’s solutions or by the latest in conventional wisdom. Creating an office that will embody the spirit of your enterprise isn’t as simple a matter as copying Jay Chiat’s virtual quiet zone or Bloomberg’s raucous boombox.
In the age of mass customization, the secret to workplace design is to customize your own space. First think through the precise nature of your own business. How do you expect your people to do their work differently? What kind of design will capture that difference, contribute to it, and leverage it? Then don’t be afraid to break ranks and design the one-of-a-kind workspace that will make it easier for your people to get the job done.
Nancy Hass has written about the media for the “New York Times” Magazine, “Newsweek,” and “The Economist.” She teaches journalism at New York University.