Comfort, care, collaboration, and coffee. Designing a workspace fit for family. / by Justin DeMers

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Some 40 miles northwest of Houston, at the end of a rural road lined preternaturally with trees, ranches, and truckstops—a road where it’s almost too easy to get stuck driving behind a semi for more than 30 minutes—is a town called Magnolia where 31Films and Film Lab Creative built a studio space they were more than happy to call home.

The idea of home plays a crucial role in 31Films’ workplace. It’s not a revolutionary concept, but it’s one almost habitually avoided in practice.

TOO OFTEN WE ASSUME WORK AND HOME CAN’T EXIST IN THE SAME PLACE: THEY REPRESENT INCOMPATIBLE VALUES, ARE FILLED WITH INCOMPATIBLE PEOPLE.

Yet, 31Films has a culture raised around the idea of family, a culture where everyone is allowed basic rights that can seem so foreign in traditional work environments: comfort, care, and collaboration.

In his new book, Leaders Eat Last (of which we’ll talk much more about on this Blog in the near future), Simon Sinek describes how understanding the intersection of office and home—of work and family—can help a small company grow in ways previously deemed impossible:   

This is what it means to build a strong company. Being a leader is like being a parent, and the company is like a new family to join. One that will care for us like we are their own...in sickness and in health. And if we are successful, our people will take on our company’s name as a sign of the family to which they are loyal.

31Film’s parents are founder Joey Mathews and Creative Director Aaron Tharpe, two storytellers who started Film Lab Creative to be able to create films and promotional pieces—the passionate stories they want to tell—with an approach separated from the rigors of a full-time production company, and so not beholden to more standard avenues for revenue and client expectation.

It’s no surprise then that their most recent piece is the first in a series with Memorial Hermann Hospitals about the experts that work in the trenches at the organization. A story of a young mother, her brush with death only scared her when she imagined the one thing she’d leave behind: her family.

Joey and Aaron may resent being so closely compared to figures of paternal authority, but in Magnolia, Texas they’ve created a space that genuinely treats their team like family.

In other words, a place of work which can instill in its workers that empathy and comfort aren’t opposed to productivity, where the entire team looks out for and leans on each other—in more ways than just those that affect the company or space directly—will find that productivity will just come naturally.

HAPPINESS FOSTERS COLLABORATION, AND COLLABORATION FOSTERS GROWTH. WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO WORK ANY OTHER WAY?

Recently we were in Houston for the Storytelling With Heart Tour, and were fortunate enough to have Joey and Aaron invite us to their new space to show us, and now you, around:

Be it an office in your apartment for your one-man band, or a brand new warehouse you’re renovating to accommodate a production company on the rise, our tour through the 31Films and Film Lab Creative HQ made clear core practices that will promote a workspace any employee—from the self-employed to the manager of many—would be happy to go to each and every day.

5 WAYS TO MAKE YOUR PLACE OF WORK A HOME AWAY FROM HOME.

1. Make people, not clients, come first.

Magnolia isn’t exactly the most convenient place to visit when traveling from a nearby hub like Houston, but that applies both ways: having an office in Houston means most of the team will face an exhausting commute each day.

Joey explained their thought process, which had little to do with rent prices, and everything to do with proximity to their actual homesteads.

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A good question to ask yourself when designing a studio space is, “How often am I going to have clients come by?” 

The reality was: we almost never had clients come in. So...we designed it more for our needs since we are the ones there everyday. We learned not to waste precious real estate for "potential"...

Long car trips or extensive rides on public transportation can afford plenty of chances to finally getting around to listening to that new Morrissey record, or finishing off that novel you’ve been sitting on forever, but for the most part, commutes are barriers between the rhythm of productivity and the relief of immediate family.

NO MATTER THE EASE OF YOUR COMMUTE OR THE LUXURY OF YOUR TRANSPORTATION, YOU WILL EVENTUALLY RESENT ANYTHING THAT STANDS IN THE WAY OF YOU AND TIME SPENT WITH THOSE YOU LOVE THE MOST IN THE WORLD.

Which isn’t to say that you can’t love your job, or even love your coworkers, but that the less of your life you spend in between the places you love will make you value the time you have all the more.

Plus, you will always find a way to accommodate clients should the need arise. Always.

2. Give your stuff space.

Joey learned a lot from their previous space in Houston, especially when it came to their functional needs.

Our last space was a very open layout that didn't really have any storage. When you want everything to be clean and modern, it means you need a lot of storage.

“Clean and modern” are the key words in this case: rarely will you find people who thrive on clutter and claustrophobia. Our need for symmetry and room is built into our DNA. They’re integral to peace of mind. Anxiety breeds in disorganized corners.

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But most of all, access is crucial. Not just to equipment for efficiency’s sake—in case you have to run off to a shoot at a moment’s notice or tend to a client need with little hassle—but in order to give team members a sense of consistency.

CONSISTENCY DEMONSTRATES TO US THAT OUR NEEDS ARE MET. TO KEEP US GUESSING IS TO SHOW US THAT YOU HAVEN’T THOUGHT ABOUT OUR WELL-BEING MUCH IN ADVANCE.

Joey even extends this to having an easy-access loading area for gear.

We decided to have our shoot space and gear storage on an outside wall with a bay door. This way we can back our car into the space, if it's raining. This makes life a ton easier.

The harder we have to work to do the most basic things we’re tasked to do, the less we’ll be happy to do them.

3. Give your people space.

Which isn’t to say that everything must be ergonomically sound, although health and comfort go hand in hand.

What this does mean is that “clean and modern” don’t have to be exclusive of our personalities.

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The 31Films space was defined by two accoutrements: a copious amount of band posters—proportions skewing toward Radiohead—and the sweet aroma of roasting coffee. (Not to mention some excellently simple Wes Anderson odes hanging in Joey’s office.)

This is far from being allowed to tack up some postcards or pictures of your kids on your cubicle walls. These posters, this smell: they define the space, give it depth. When you enter 31Films’ studio, you begin to intuit the intermingling of identities at play.

WE MUST BE SURROUNDED NOT ONLY BY THOSE WE LOVE, BUT BY THE THINGS WE LOVE. IT REMINDS US OF THE DEEP, COMFORTING CONNECTIONS WE CAN MAKE WITH THE KINDS OF ART MANY OF US ARE TRYING TO CREATE.

There’s no quicker way to stifle productivity and creativity than to hold conformity in some sort of esteem over whatever it is that allows your workers to settle into a pace and environment that keeps them content.

4. Get out of the way of your space’s natural flow. Until you can’t.

If you couldn’t tell, the 31Films studio has a lot of windows. A lot.

We love natural light. We wanted a lot of windows...If we could have built a glass box, we probably would have.

It makes sense. Especially considering how Story & Heart HQ is located in Portland: we know well the importance of sunlight.

But you should consider where the sun is going to hit your space. Direct sunlight blasting into an editors’ space in the middle of the day can make editing painful… 

Mostly, finding that balance, between catering to the natural environment that surrounds your space and building it to suit your purposes, is about a mindset of respect: doing as much to mitigate your footprint as possible while understanding that a workspace is just that. A worker is meant to be there—working.

MORE THAN A THREE-DIMENSIONAL ATTITUDE, HARMONY IS A WAY OF LIFE.

If every facet of your space is working smoothly in unison, then so will your creative process, so will your team, and so will everything you create.

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5. Understand one thing: we’re a bunch of contradictions.

Community is vital to us telling the stories we were meant to tell.

But sometimes we need to be alone: to focus, to hone in on our own voices, to thrive without influence.

In designing the 31Films space, Joey and Aaron intimately knew that every team member needs both collaboration and solitude. Joey compromised.

We have separate offices with no more than 2 people sharing at a time [which] helps when focused work needs to happen. To keep the vibe open, most all of our office walls are glass. We also have several lounge areas when we need to collaborate together or review edits as a team.

It keeps the creativity flowing and helps us complete projects on time.

ABOVE ALL, A FAMILY IS ORGANIC: IT ALTERS, IT ADAPTS, IT SHRINKS AND GROWS AND SHRINKS AGAIN—BUT IN THE END IT STICKS TOGETHER.

Think of it like a family home, or maybe the house that you grew up in. We need support from those that know us well, we need to grow together with a group of people who can help us on our way, but we also need our own room.

It may not be easy, or sometimes seem even feasible, to foresee your every working need, or to be totally comfortable when the proverbial rubber hits the road, or to always work well in a team—because nothing ever happens smoothly 100% of the time—but it is easy to treat your work the way you want to be treated: with heart.

NO MATTER THE NATURE OF OUR WORK, OUR WORK MUST COME NATURALLY.

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We spend so much of our lives working—creating, building, sharing—it’s well within our power to work on what we love, with people we love, within a place we love.

And the best place we can start? At home.

So now we’re looking for inspirational workspaces: share some you’ve come across in the comments below, or even something you’ve done at your own workplace to bring some passion to a typically passionless place.