Designed for the Crew

One of my favorite things to do is to create environments for our associates, customers and partners. Some of the environments are permanent homes like office spaces while others are fluid like events. The light, colors, variety of seating, textures and proximity of “supplies” like coffee and snacks are all elements that when woven together make for a great environment. Those environments become the seedbed for ideas to germinate and spring to life.

Olin Stephens, the famous sailing vessel designer, once said that his priority for creating a vessel was the comfort of the crew. He knew that when the crew had a great environment, they would excel and work with confidence. He obviously did a good job, as his classic sailing yachts have won the America’s Cups eight times and the Newport to Bermuda Race fourteen times.1

Extraordinary professional environments do not have to be expensive. The key is thoughtful design by the people who are leading the teams and involved in the daily activities. When we design spaces at Benefitfocus, we work with industry leading specialists who have all of the current resources at their disposal. Yet we do not defer the vision to them; we communicate the emotion and vision and include them in the process of drawing out an incredible final product.

As I travel, I keep track of the way spaces make me feel. I take a lot of photos of offices, retail spaces, coffee shops, conference facilities, art galleries and even outdoor spaces. I listen to how my mind and body react to certain colors, textures, seating layouts, etc. When we are working on a specific event or a new office space, I pour that emotion out on the table and challenge our design team to do the same. We get deeply into the emotional and functional aspect of what we are creating. Personally, I push for the “feeling” that people will have when they enter the space and when they live in it over time.

In his book, Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, spends a good deal of time unpacking for us the physical environments his team has created for their designers, artists and engineers. He even shares experiences on how he organizes the seating for his executive reviews of key projects. His experiences, mistakes, tweaks and tremendous successes are great teaching moments for us as we create our own environments.

If your physical space has already been created, you still have a substantial opportunity to influence the emotion and impact it can have on your team. Perhaps your team is trying to solve a complex technical problem, maybe one that has been nagging you for some time. Rather than sit in the traditional conference room and hold the traditional meeting, why not try sitting on the floor in an open area? Ask everyone to bring a beanbag chair or big pillow from home. Make it fun. Get a lava lamp or surfboard and stick it nearby. Grab some different snacks and put them in colorful bowls or cups. Take twenty minutes and play a board game or game of cards. Tap into the creative genius of your team.

The efficient design of a hull and the orientation of the sails of a competitive sailing yacht are incredibly important. But as Olin Stephens has proven, the most important thing is setting the crew in a context of comfort. Only then will they extract every knot out of that beauty. And in doing so they will pull ahead and win the race.

Here are a few of the small details that we incorporated into our Design + Engineering space that helped it come alive as an environment of creativity:


Benefitfocus Design + Engineering 3rd Floor


See more photos of our Design + Engineering building here.


See photos of our new Customer Success Center here.

1"The great yacht designer Olin Stephens once said at a lecture at the New York Yacht Club that his priority for designing yachts was the comfort of the crew. When you are comfortable on a boat, you are able to work with confidence. This is quite an important statement coming fro a man whose yachts have won the America’s Cup eight times, and the Newport to Bermuda Race fourteen times." Francois Chevalier Classic Yachts (New York: Abbeville Press, 2008) [excerpt from "Foreword." by Gary Jobson, page 4.]