From viral cooking videos to breaking news, BuzzFeed is known for its original content. We visited the digital media giant’s New York City headquarters and sat down with Gabrielle Rubin Deveaux, senior director of global real estate & facilities, to talk about how she built the dream workplace for creative thinkers.
This is BuzzFeed’s first permanent home in New York. What was important to you in building out the space?
When we acquired this building in 2015, the company was doubling in size. We had exactly one year to move into this massive, 200,000 square feet space, so we really had to hit the ground running.
When I started the design process, I asked our CEO, Jonah Peretti, to give three words he would use to describe the prospective space. His answer: casual, light, and optimistic. I suddenly had a vision as to what he was looking for.
Light, for instance, can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It means having natural light or it can mean simply being flexible and not taking ourselves too seriously. We don’t want to over-design or overthink it.
The original rendering of the space had guys walking around in suits. Everybody’s desk was perfectly clean, and there was nothing on the walls. It was pretty barren.
So I went back to the architect and asked that he add some personal effects. Make the guys in suits wear cool T-shirts and baseball hats. Put some writing on the dry erase walls. What I was trying to emphasize is that a lot of the color will come in through your people and what they bring into the space. Our desks may be white and the carpet might be grey, but when you have people writing on the walls with colorful markers, suddenly, the space has a completely different look.
BuzzFeed as a media company is always evolving and shifting gears. What do you think is the best way to build a space that accommodates those changes?
As the business grows, the most important thing is to make sure that everything in your space is flexible and fungible. Everybody works differently, and some people want privacy while others want collaboration. If you have things that are attached to the floor and can’t move around, then it’s not conducive to how your company is functioning. Having simple chairs and furniture that can turn in different directions and create various types of spaces is paramount to any good workspace.
This office houses hundreds of employees on several different floors. How do you think this space fosters a sense of community?
The first thing that comes to mind is the staircase that connects all of our floors. I’d love to do a time lapse video to see how much activity takes place on our stairs. Not only does it get you from A to B, but it also encourages impromptu meetings. Thanks to that, there’s none of that siloed feeling, even though we have people on six different floors.
The other thing I think is really smart is the canteen, which takes up a third of the 13th floor and houses our microwaves, toasters, cold brew, frozen yogurt, and soda machines. On all the other floors, we just have coffee, water, and a refrigerator for your lunch. This is what you could call “intentional inconveniences.” If we had provided a microwave and a toaster on every floor, you wouldn’t need to leave your floor. So we allow you to move and see other people instead of being tethered to your desk. I think all of those little things help foster collaboration and a sense of community.
BuzzFeed is known for creative, viral content. What do you think is the best way to build a space that encourages creativity?
I’ve visited a lot offices, and some of them are spectacular, making our space feel basic in comparison. But I really believe that when it comes to promoting creativity, you need to provide somewhat of a blank slate. If you give creative people a blank slate, they’ll create the most amazing things. You need to allow people to make the space their own and let their personality come through.
For example, one time, BuzzFeed staffers came to me asking if they could use the canteen to shoot a Facebook live that could demonstrate how many rubber bands you can wrap around a watermelon until it pops. Our canteen is 9,000 square feet, but the tables flip, nest, and roll away, so my team was able to clear out the entire space in about six minutes. I think that because there’s a cut-through, a space where you can see what’s happening on the 13th floor from the floor above, the open space has allowed them to think about these creative ideas.
Later, we also had people contact us saying that they wanted to host an art show. We ended up hanging fishing lines all over the canteen and transforming it from a place where we eat lunch and meet into a full-on art gallery. I’m always amazed by what people come and ask us to do.
How did you keep the space consistent with BuzzFeed’s ideals and culture?
We’ve never lost our scrappy startup mentality. I know how much we spent on the space, and it’s not like the CFO said this is all the money we have. But it was important that we stay away from things that are superfluous. We have nice things at this office, but for the most part, they’re also functional and durable.
With the staircase, for instance, I wanted to keep it simple. I’ve done spaces before where you take the staircase and make it a signature piece. But this time, I didn’t want something that could be outdated in four years. We went with a concrete tread, black steel, pre-fab staircase with a wooden rail. And it’ll stand the test of time and won’t get destroyed, even with more than 700 people walking on it all day.
What’s your final word of advice for someone looking to build a space for young creatives?
Ask your founder how they would describe your brand and culture. Those two things should be reflected in your physical space. Anyone who walks through the space here knows that this is BuzzFeed. I’ve been to other spaces that are absolutely beautiful, but you wouldn’t necessarily know who works there. It’s important that you don’t lose sight of your own identity.