I wake up and remember that my desk is a mess. It’s 6 a.m. and this is a problem.
It’s a problem because today Tina Roth Eisenberg, the founder of Swissmiss design studio, organizer of the monthly CreativeMornings lecture series, and creator of the TeauDeux to-do app and Tattly tattoos, is going to be sitting in my seat. So I roll out of bed, bike to my office, stash some papers, clear off a week-old cup of tea, then go back home and prepare for my day at the office. Her office.
9 a.m. This swap was Tina’s idea. She says, “The idea for the monthly desk swap came out of my current obsession and interest in office culture.” And she suggested it in lieu of a traditional coffee meeting when we ran into one another at a startup mentoring event. Thinking about this on my ride home also makes me realize the biggest drawback to swapping desks: I won’t get to spend any time with the key person that I wanted to meet in the first place.
But you do get to know the person in an odd way, get a peek at how they think. And beyond a change of scenery for the day, trading spaces allows me to parachute into someone else’s office culture and learn firsthand about what makes them successful. Part of the deal is that I’ll be having lunch with Tina’s team so that I can find out more about how they work.
10 a.m. The long line at the coffee shops here is a testament to how much Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood has become a bustling hive of startup activity. And while there are some shiny new buildings nearby, many of these folks are headed to one of the converted warehouses here that offer large, mostly raw industrial spaces that startups can configure as needed. Tina arrived in 2005, when it was still a nowheresville. Her building sits next to the East River and adjacent to some kind of electrical transformer station. Originally built in 1897, it was a coffee storage warehouse and later a sugar refinery. In the early aughts, there were some semilegal rave parties there.
10:20 a.m. I’m perspiring from the six-flight walkup (the elevator is out of service) when I’m greeted at the door by Tina’s “swissmisstant,” an illustrator named Jen Mussari. Plenty of people have an assistant outside or near their office. Tina sits just a few feet down the table from Jen, and, besides being my host for the day, she was an extension of the office ethos. Which includes, as I learned, several welcoming tweets from my office mates for the day, as well as Tina uploading photos of the view from my office to Instagram.
I had yet to take a single photo of Tina’s desk, or send a welcoming tweet. I did, however, bring a box of seasonal doughnuts in a well-designed box (I realized this only after some of the studio mates mentioned it).
11 a.m. Tina left me a handpicked selection of her temporary Tattly tattoos and a handwritten welcome note. (I left her . . . well, the desk was clean). Her desk sits on the windowed edge of a raw space–perhaps 200 square feet–painted entirely white. Two wall-length rectangular windows look out over the Manhattan skyline as a procession of tugboats, fireboats, and barges float down the East River directly below.
Tina started Swissmiss in this single room, with four other women. Then she broke down a wall into the space next door; took over another small room down the hall when it became available, and then a larger L-shaped room. There are now 12 people working for Swissmiss, but Tina also oversees three different offices that more than 40 people use as a collaborative workspace called Studiomates.
During my visit, there were web developers, book editors, an industrial designer, and a documentary filmmaker working in the space. They all share intelligence, exchange advice, and, most important, use one another’s services. In a way, it’s a startup accelerator without the trade-offs. No wonder all the desks are rented and there’s a waiting list to get in.
12 p.m. Most of the Studiomates I met inhabited multiple roles and had some degree of ownership over the work they did—classic Generation Flux. Sally Rumble oversees the monthly CreativeMornings series, but she’s also an industrial designer. Wesley Verhoeve spends the bulk of his time on an artisanal men’s lifestyle website called GNTLMN, founded the independent artist management firm Family Records, and is a freelance writer who has contributed a very popular post to Fast Company and written for many other outlets. Chris Shiflett is an app developer and the co-organizer of Brooklyn Beta, a hugely successful web conference.
12:30 p.m. During a catered lunch with the Studiomates, I polled the group to find out how many of them had worked in a more traditional office setting. Eight of the dozen people at the table had. None of them think they will ever go back. Offices, a couple of people agreed, were built to create barriers to new ideas and getting things done.
“There’s a lot more opportunity to run into people and chat with people,” Mandy Brown, the cofounder of A Book Apart and Editorially, said of the Studiomates culture in a follow-up interview. “I engage in conversation in a way that feels more vibrant and lively.”
1 p.m. The open-plan office isn’t without challenges, like someone walking behind you during a Skype conference call. There are no dedicated phone lines. The building elevator is often broken, and the air conditioners are working overtime to cool off the sun-soaked rooms — which is probably only part of why the dress code tilts toward shorts and tank tops.
There are some basic rules on the rental agreement that incoming Studiomates sign (#8 “Don’t be a douche!”). And the unspoken contract is that if you work in the L-shaped 606 office you are quiet and maybe wearing noise-canceling headphones. Over at 612, where Tina sits, by contrast, there was an alt-rock playlist on the speakers and a soccer ball being toed around.
The collaborative atmosphere energized me (the cold brew coffee helped, too). And it got me thinking about how to apply some of their techniques to my own office. (This article was written using Brown’s still-in-beta Editorially, for one thing.) But in truth, it would be nearly impossible to replicate. Mixing up the desks at Fast Company might induce some knowledge transfer, but it wouldn’t foster the orthogonal connections that I saw forming in this ad hoc group of design-centric startups.
“I am convinced that if it wasn’t for my Studiomates I wouldn’t be where I am today in my career,” Tina tells me later. “When you surround yourself with smart, driven, entrepreneurial folks, they change how you look at your own work, they make you raise your own bar.”
2 p.m. My entire office is applying Tattly tattoos to parts of their bodies that normally don’t get a lot of public attention.
3 p.m. I head over to the Tattly office, which consists of a table full of designers working on iMacs, and every single temporary tattoo they have ever created. While they are hard at work fulfilling orders, I apply tattoos to my arm, wrist, and the back of my neck. How does anyone here get anything done?
I can’t imagine that Tina is getting much real work done today. And I’m not making much progress either. To regain focus, I consider moving to the makeshift conference space down the hall, which is bedecked with reclaimed wood and a comfortable but modern-looking couch. But once back at Tina’s desk, I dig into email and also wonder how much longer I can sit on the Ergo Ergo chair, which looks like a giant spring covered in soft orange plastic. It’s certainly making my muscles aware of how I sit.
At my office, Tina is tasting fresh beet juice for the first time. “Life altering,” she says.
4 p.m. Would I give up my office with a sliding glass door and faux Aeron chair in favor of such a dynamic workplace? You bet. The Studiomates support one another through overlapping disciplines. One person sells clothes and another sells software, but they share intelligence and trade advice on pain points like fulfillment solutions (Digiweb), collaboration tools (still Basecamp), and conferences to attend (XOXO in Portland).
5 p.m. It turns out I can’t totally escape my office today and head back for a meeting. It also gives me a chance to see Tina for a few minutes. She compliments me by saying, “You win.” I misinterpret the comment to mean that my office was somehow better, when in fact she’s comparing it to her other desk swaps.
It turns out that desk swapping isn’t necessarily a competitive event, though at times it did feel that way. In the end, based on the number of Tattly tattoos my staff was inked with the next day, it looks like the biggest winners might have been them.
I’m ready for my next desk swap. If you’re interested in trading places for a day, drop me a line on Twitter @noahr.
[Photos by Joel Arbaje for Fast Company]