HQ audit / Global
Pushchair company Joolz has embraced an office design that resonates with its green credentials, giving its staff space to breathe – and its plants room to grow.
First impressions count, particularly when it’s the place where you spend most of your waking life: the office. At Joolz, a Dutch pushchair brand, the first things you see after walking through the enormous glass doors are a set of decks on a bar, a café and soaring greenhouses filled with tropical plants. This is a place where working hard is balanced with relaxing.
True to form, lunchtime sees everyone – including the CEO – step away from their desks and enjoy a lively meal together, with some venturing out onto the terrace. The office has an in-house gym with a personal trainer and boot-camp sessions every Thursday after work. On Friday evenings, after-work drinks are provided along with music; occasionally, the whole party is transplanted onto a boat.
“Positive, inspiring, playful and involved,” says CEO Stan Vermeulen, listing the company’s core values. “We like to not take ourselves too seriously while doing serious business.”
And despite the easygoing vibe, serious business is exactly what Joolz is about. It was founded in 2004 by Emile Kuenen after he saw parents struggling to get around Amsterdam with their buggies and decided to create something more flexible, city-friendly and ergonomic. Joolz has since become a premium brand and the past five years have seen its revenue skyrocket from €7m in 2011 to an expected €40m this year. With the help of Gimv, a Belgium-based investment firm that last year acquired a 40 per cent stake, Joolz is set to become a global player in the lucrative baby-product industry.
This explosive growth meant the company soon outgrew its previous office in a charming canal house in Amsterdam’s historic but cramped city centre. The lack of space meant staff were spread across four different locations. “That led to miscommunication, people feeling left out and not enough connecting the dots or connecting with the brand,” says Vermeulen. “It’s simple but very important.”
In 2014 the team started looking for somewhere new that would reflect the brand’s commitment to sustainability, increase efficiency and leave space for growth. Nothing in the centre of town was green enough or big enough so they turned to the northern district of Noord – the firm’s original home between 2004 and 2009. Dominated by that post-industrial gritty feel, Noord is in the midst of extensive regeneration and has become a Petri dish for all sorts of companies looking to do things differently. In other words, it is the perfect fit.
The firm found a recently vacated machine factory and went for it, eventually moving in last May after nine months of refurbishment. Now 65 out of 95 staff work over two floors in a light-filled open-plan office that is unrecognisable from before – aside from a few steel girders and some machinery left as an homage to the building’s former purpose.
“There were originally oil smears on the floors and walls, dirty toilets – and it hadn’t been renovated since the 1960s,” says CEO Kuenen. “But we picked it because we wanted the opportunity to turn something like this into a sustainable building, to transform something from an old function into a new function. These kinds of opportunities are fantastic.”
Principles in action
Joolz spent €3m on buying the property and whipping it into shape, enlisting Dutch architecture-and-design firm Space Encounters to create the “most inspiring workplace in the world”, says Vermeulen. With a tight budget, the firm decided to focus on two key ideas, one of which was the three greenhouses – or as Space Encounters’ founding partner Joost Baks calls them, “the green lungs”.
These air-purifying tropical portals form the spine of the office and separate the recreation and working areas. They also contain meeting rooms and private work spaces. “It tricks you into thinking you’re not working,” says Natalie Nederkoorn, the office manager. “In a normal office you go outside to chat but here the outside is inside.”
They originally contained birds, fish, butterflies and a vegetable patch but practical considerations around noise, contaminated soil and, ahem, droppings mean that only the aquatic life remains. They can also get hot in the summer when the sun pours through the skylights, something the company is working on fixing. Nevertheless, they provide a stimulating setting for meetings and were in constant use when monocle visited.
And the building’s green credentials don’t stop there. The roof has so many solar panels that they generate more electricity than Joolz needs, with the rest sold back to the grid. The ingredients for lunch are organic, the coffee is fairchain (one step above fairtrade) from Dutch firm Moyee and they practise “meatless Monday”. What makes all of this meaningful, as opposed to plastered-on csr fodder, is that it’s a reflection of Joolz’s principles: the firm plants a tree in Colombia for every registered buggy, for example, and all cardboard packaging can be repurposed as a bird box, chair or decorative reindeer.
In it together
One of the goals of the new office was to have space for different types of work; it now houses a testing room with equipment that simulates the conditions of a pavement, as well as an atelier for experimenting with fabrics. Thanks to the extensive use of glass and low-rise walls, both are easy for staff to peer into. “It’s made the business more efficient,” says Kuenen. “But now everyone who didn’t know what was going on before has an opinion. That doesn’t make things easy but it shows there is a lot of commitment from the people here. That’s all because of this building – it’s very transparent.”
This openness means staff can reach each other more easily and there’s a sense of everyone being in it together. “The vibe is amazing,” says Machteld Koch, head of marketing. “I really go to work feeling happy.” The downside is that noise can be a problem; there are already plans to install a wall of glass down the middle of the building to create a sound barrier.
Space Encounters also wanted to make the building’s exterior transparent and another idea was to install enormous windows at a slant so that passers-by could look in. “This creates an identity and a way to see the greenhouses from outside,” says Baks. “It’s better for the people who work here and better for the surrounding place.”
Also responsible for the interior design, Space Encounters has fitted the workspace with furniture from its award-winning Boring range in collaboration with Lensvelt. Everything in the office is adjustable, just like the pushchairs Joolz creates. Other than that, the pieces are soft grey in colour and intentionally nondescript. There is little else in the form of interior decoration – the walls are adorned with pieces of paper covered in pictures of wheels and baby chairs, rather than the usual art. “That’s why the Boring collection fitted perfectly,” says Baks with a smile. “It’s not about the furniture, it’s about the green lungs. We had the ambition that people would go home happier at the end of he day and I think we succeeded in that.”
Joolz’s office creates a unique workspace that prioritises staff wellbeing in a meaningful and creative way. The gym, café and bar provide plenty of chances for people to relax, bond and have fun – key to having a happy team. Although office plants have become de rigueur these days (and for good reason), Space Encounters’ bid to create a green space that people can actually use is laudable and easily replicated, as long as attention is paid to climate regulation.
However, the need for quieter spaces walled off from the recreational areas should have been foreseen, rather than sacrificed for the sake of an open-plan office. Further, the rate of growth in the company means that the building already feels full.
But ultimately this is an inspiring and beautiful place to work. The office’s design principles resonate with the brand’s sustainable values and magnifies them, a real boon for a company that trades on its eco-friendly ideology. Uniquely, it also manages to feel like somewhere fun – something that few offices manage to get right.
Joolz in numbers
Expected revenue, 2017: €40m
Countries that products are sold in: 30
Cups of coffee drunk last year: 50,000