Why Square Designed Its New Offices To Work Like A City

Maybe all our offices should have major avenues and a town square.

When Square began working with the design firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ) to envision Square’s new San Francisco offices–which it moved into six weeks ago–Square included a strange delegate: someone with no design background at all. But Chris Gorman, Square’s head of office experience, nonetheless had an important role to play. “A lot of what I was there to do was to check assumptions, to make sure the designs for the space would allow actual interactions to occur,” he explained to Fast Company.


Gorman was concerned, in other words, with what you might call the “user experience” of Square’s physical office space. And it reflects in the space that resulted (pictured in the slide show above).

Chris Gorman

“We were very inspired by city design and by cities in general–by areas where people cohabitate, come together, and share things in a quick and easy manner,” Gorman says. “We wanted to bring that same sensibility to the office.” And so instead of talking about a main hallway when describing the office, Gorman explains how there’s a large “avenue” running from end to end. A coffee bar in the middle acts as a sort of “town square.” Glass paneled meeting rooms are named for San Francisco intersections, “6th and Divisidero,” “6th and Ashbury,” and so on (Square’s offices are principally on the 6th floor of its building).

The design of the office “motivates people to move around the office and interact in casual, unscheduled ways,” he explains–just like the well-planned public spaces of a great city. Early concepts for the office were motivated by old 18th-century maps of cities. “When I think about a city,” Gorman says, “I shop, I go get coffee, I go to the park, I go for walks. We wanted to create that same variety in the office.” In addition to its in-house café (and in-house debugger/barista), Square has been experimenting with pop-up stores and artisan merchants appearing within Square’s own offices.

Gorman’s job–he was hired about a year ago–will only grow more complicated and essential as Square expands. “We’re recognizing that we’re a global company,” says Gorman. Indeed, Square’s 600 employees are now spread across several cities: San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, Tokyo, and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario; all those locations have a dedicated office except the last, which will get one next year.

Gorman spends a fair amount of his time traveling from office to office, making sure that while each location has its own particularities, it’s nonetheless reflective of Square and its values as a whole. For instance, in the San Francisco office, there are small, informal meeting rooms the employees call cabanas, intended for “quick off-the-cuff meetings without using a conference room.” But how to carry this tradition over in Japan?

Gorman worked to design a “tatami room” for the Japanese office. A traditional element of Japanese architecture, the tatami room is often the initial place where people meet and gather in Japanese homes, says Gorman–“generally a place where you’ll find a sense of calm.” In Tokyo–as in San Francisco, New York, and Atlanta before it–all design elements are meant to underscore Square’s key values of collaboration and transparency.


Other elements help unify the experience across Square offices. Most simple, robust teleconferencing technology helps keep communication strong. That includes telecommuting robots; six in the San Francisco headquarters, and one in each of the other offices. Gorman has also helped to assemble travel guides tailored for Square employees, so that they’re not lost when they jet from Tokyo to Atlanta, or vice versa. The ultimate goal is to create a “unified language,” a sense that when you move from one office to another, you’re still home.

“Scaling culture” is a perennial challenge for a growing startup. By hiring someone dedicated to the task, and by embedding the values of its culture in its design across multiple offices, Square seems to be pulling it off.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.