In the midst of caring for employees and adjusting to a new way of working, Uber during the past year-plus has been designing and building new talent hubs around the world. From San Francisco and Mexico City to Amsterdam and Dallas, the COVID-19 pandemic created delays and necessitated pivots across all projects. Two internal experts whom Uber relies on to steer these endeavors are Trish Johnson, Global Head of Transactions and Projects, and Isabel Thompson, Global Program Manager for Space and Design.
We sat down with them to learn about Uber’s core office philosophies, how the pandemic influenced the design of the company’s new buildings, and the features Uber employees can look forward to when they’re back in the office.
Uber for Business: What does your team do at Uber?
Trish Johnson: From the point the strategy is developed, my team takes [on] the transaction negotiations with the broker and the landlords. Once the deal is secured, the project team then uses the design guidelines to build out the space.
We then have what we call the DEX team, Design and Employee Experience, which is where Isabel sits. They manage the design standards, the guidelines, what kind of furniture, the finishes, and all of that.
And we have the Occupancy Planning team that tells us how many people we have in an office so we can track what we call the health of the building: Do we have too much space? Too little? Do we need to pull some levers to make some changes?
How has the pandemic influenced your roles?
Isabel Thompson: I support projects that are in flight, so there were obviously some delays that occurred. In the past, we would get really close to our external vendors and get the opportunity to really visualize the space. We would do all of that in person. [COVID] totally changed the way we collaborate and interact with our colleagues all over the world. We’ve still been able to do the work, but it’s all been virtual.
TJ: There has been a lot of pivoting in projects, designs, and thinking about how [our space] needs to perform in the future. There was not a lot of direction, because who knew what was going to happen? An example is, we were hearing all about the touch-transmission of COVID, so the team evaluated all of our projects and put together a whole menu of touchless environments.
Then we learned that [COVID] is airborne, so we had to focus on how to design healthy buildings with air quality. Now we are thinking about what a hybrid workplace will look like and keeping up with design changes in anticipation of [Uber’s hybrid] policy.
Tell us more about Uber’s hybrid workplace model.
TJ: We are an in-person company, and we value the culture that in-person [work] brings. We’re going to have people in offices 3 days a week, so it’s a little bit of a departure from where we were. Now we’re thinking, How do we embrace the strong desire to have people collaborate and spend time with each other? It’s a different way of thinking about healthy spatial distancing, how you flow through the buildings, and how to support new ways of working.
What are some core workplace philosophies you keep in mind when designing Uber’s spaces?
IT: Our amenities are something we always [keep in mind]. For example, our food program is something of big importance to employees. We really try to incorporate not just a full-service kitchen but also different break rooms and beverage bars. Each of these elements is an opportunity for what we call dynamic interaction.
Before [remote work], a lot of that happened by running into each other, so we purposefully design our spaces to have moments of that. So when you come out of an elevator, you don’t go directly to a workstation. You’re in a collaboration space or a break room, someplace that forces you to pause before going to your destination.
How do you apply those philosophies to the physical creation of the spaces?
IT: For each location, we talk through what the [employee] experience would be like and make sure it meets the goals we want. A lot of our spaces tend to be multi-floor, so we’ve started designing interconnecting stairs to get more of that dynamic interaction.
We [also] have a foundational programming piece depending on headcount, expected growth, and lease length. We have a calculator that gives us a high-level square footage. We do a CAD drawing and put together test fits and floor plans, because every floor plate is different. Then we onboard a design team that supports us. Once we have the floor plans, we start playing and get insights from the [on-site] team. Like, maybe the views on the north side are better, so we flip the floor plans because we want the cafe to have those views.
What can Uber employees be excited about as they come back to offices?
TJ: It’s interesting because [many employees] are leaving one environment and coming to an entirely new one. I think, if nothing else, curiosity should pull you into the office. When you get here, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by some of the amenities.
IT: Everywhere you turn, there’s something interesting to look at. We have local artist installations built within the different buildings to really connect back to where we are.
Top priority is to also make sure the spaces feel like they’re welcoming and that you can do whatever you need to do within the time you’re at the office. [In Mission Bay, the new headquarters in San Francisco], I specifically love the wellness suite where I can just zen out.
There’s a lot going on, and we’re all very busy. Super important are things like a care room, which supports anyone who just needs a rest. Our kitchens are not yet up and running, but those are also amazing spaces. The materiality is just so beautiful.
Across our talent hubs, we have a similar look and feel, but there are little [differences], like a speakeasy behind a door or a library for quiet time. All of that will be really exciting. Employees don’t really know what they have yet, so go in and take a look around. Go for a day, don’t take any meetings, and just walk around.
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