• Much of the office eschews traditional desks for casual lounge seating. - photo by Jasper Sanidad

Atlassian reconsiders the post-pandemic office.

Project Atlassian Austin
Location Austin
Client Atlassian
Architect Mithun
Design Team Lisa Scribante, AIA, Elizabeth Gordon, Emily Vester, Greg Catron, AIA, Frances Lee, AIA, Taylor Tessmer-Mogan, Melissa Perkinson, K Kaczmarek, Johnston Roberts, Steve Duncan, AIA, Andrew Diehl, AIA, Lori Manderson-Tilley, Tim Mollette-Parks
Contractor Harvey-Cleary Builders
Custom Installations Sarabi
Lighting Design ISP Design
Furniture Dealer CRI
Plants Texas Tropical Plants
Photographer Jasper Sanidad

The pandemic forced a reckoning with physical office space—or so the story goes. In reality, the role of the office and its spatial materialization has always been fluid, adapting to changes in technological and cultural trends. The rise of the word processor in the 1970s mandated isolated spaces for the machinery, quickly followed by individual workstations (and later cubicles) as the technology shrank. At the beginning of the century, the advent of the laptop expanded the meaning of “workstations.” 

The 2010s ushered in the era of amenities, further transforming the office. Work was no longer just the place with files and technology; it was a gathering of employees. WeWork—a company founded on the premise of flexible workstations and a belief in the intrinsic value of work-related community, networking, and collaboration—was founded in 2010 and reached its financial and cultural peak by the end of that decade. Although coworking spaces were originally intended for solo entrepreneurs and small start-ups, tech offices were also pushed to mimic their now-familiar buzz.

Many tech companies attempt to incentivize their employees to embark on commutes that, for many white-collar remote workers, are double their pre-pandemic distances. In addition to the prevalence of mobile workstations, we now have several years of proven experience that our jobs do not seem to require us to leave our homes. An office space is not the default in many industries, and employers now find themselves trying to prove its value. For Atlassian, an Australian collaboration software company that supports a “distributed workforce,” the option to work remotely is guaranteed, making their creation of a 157,000-sf office in Austin somewhat of a surprise. It’s also ambitious: as Mithun partner Elizabeth Gordon, an architect on the project, notes, “The reality is that the office is competing with the home as the primary place of work.” Having flexibility to work remotely certainly benefits employees, particularly working parents. It can reduce or eliminate commutes or allow them to avoid rush hour with flexible schedules.

Atlassian’s philosophy toward distributed work is called “Team Anywhere,” and their vision for the five-story regional hub in East Austin’s bustling Saltillo neighborhood revolves around the idea of the office as both a workplace and a place for socializing and creating crucial in-person connections with colleagues and teammates. To design the interior, Atlassian selected Seattle-based Mithun, who worked with the developer’s core and shell architects early in the design process. Gordon comments that hybrid work “has forced companies and the designers that support those companies to rethink what is important.” Atlassian’s assumption is that the office as a social hub is intrinsically valuable, an idea reflected in the programming of the project.

Gordon says that the client envisioned the office “as a cultural hub rather than a desk house.” Indeed, the design strays far from a typical office; the desks are few and far between, averaging 18 workstations per floor as opposed to the typical benchmark of 212 for the same square footage. The first and second floors are both used as entrances and are hospitality-inspired, serving as a coffee shop and living room, respectively. Skylights and the largely open floor plans bring natural light in. A large, highly visible and custom central stair connects all the floors and is intended to encourage circulation. The lack of assigned workstations also advances this goal; employees can roam between cafe areas, lounges, an ample variety of seating, and a terrace. Sliding whiteboards, acoustic curtains, and movable furnishings encourage group work, while focus rooms aim to facilitate more intense individual work. Rachel Reilly, Atlassian’s workplace experience lead  for the central United States, says the office is currently adding more traditional desks to better support how employees work.

Atlassian selected Mithun and started to design the interiors just before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the project was completed in July 2022. Recognizing that shelter-in-place orders were temporary but the hybrid role of the office was not, Mithun led the client through several months of visioning to refine what, exactly, the office would provide.

Lisa Scribante, AIA, a partner at Mithun, explains that many of the interior experiences—some with unexpected local roots—are meant to be discovered over time. This is perhaps epitomized by a hidden “Texas-themed” speakeasy that features corrugated metal finishes and a Lotería tile backsplash. Gordon also points to the use of local artists for wayfinding murals and local companies for tile as ties to the company’s new physical home. Mithun collaborated with Atlassian’s in-house creative direction team to forge a branded visual identity that includes the repeated use of a distinctive medium blue and quippy slogans like “G’Day Y’All” at the concierge. The effect is something akin to an airy, trendy coffee shop full of curved millwork, colorful tiles, and circular pendants.

Atlassian’s experience in Austin seems to ensure that the office in its evolving form as more amenity space than workspace is here to stay. The company recently worked with Mithun again to open a smaller office in the northwestern United States. They have also decided that the changing role of the office requires new amenities aimed at improving employees’ mental and physical health: meditation/prayer rooms, fitness classes, and even a parents lounge with private lactation suites.

In the 1980s, sociologist Ray Oldenburg pioneered the term “third places” to describe spaces where critical social interactions, characterized by their informality and broad community access, transpire. The third place is distinct from the first place (home) and second place (work) because of its largely public nature. Atlassian’s Austin office not only fills the needs of the second place but attempts to integrate elements of the third place. However, employee requests for more traditional, individual workstations seem to imply that the current office is sacrificing some of the pragmatism of the second place for the ideals of the third.

As the boundaries between the first place and second place mesh, the office, in competing with the home, takes on the role of third place—or, more cynically, attempts to co-opt its benefits to lure workers back. Atlassian’s bid on the office as a social hub seems to be popular among employees; Scribante notes that some employees only use the cafe-style ground floor. This aligns with broad data on remote workers: a professor of economics at Stanford University found that among remote workers, roughly a third worked in coworking or other public spaces (prompting, it seems, an increasing number of anti-laptop policies in local coffee shops). Atlassian seems to have tapped into this behavior, emulating a coworking space rather than a traditional office. Reilly says that the demographic most often working in-office are early career professionals who may live nearby and enjoy the routine and socialization the office provides.

In keeping with the company’s essence, Atlassian remains dedicated to distributed work and remote options amidst a wave of return-to-office mandates. The dissipation of the traditional office and the 9-to-5 workday isn’t all kombucha on tap and comfortable couches, though; the New York Times reported that Americans worked 28 percent more after traditional hours when remote.

The dissolution of the boundaries between work and home manifests in the design of the Atlassian office. The “places” proposed by Oldenburg have all collapsed: the first and third (home and social) places have entered the second (work); but, in turn, the second space has permeated the rest.

Maya Shamir is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where she majored in architecture and minored in history. She is currently pursuing her Master of Design Studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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