Inside The Creative Office Cultures At Facebook, IDEO, And Virgin Airlines


Leah Lamb

August 11, 2015

What do the leaders in the industries of tech, design, and travel have in common? Facebook, Virgin Airlines, and IDEO all pride themselves in their approach to creativity and innovation. And their company cultures reflect their ethos.

We took a behind-the-scenes tour of these three companies to see what goes into building inspiration into the everyday workplace experience.

The moment you walk into these three organizations, it becomes obvious they aren’t doing business as usual. Facebook’s walls are covered with massive art installations, and murals on the walls compete with three-foot-tall balloons stationed above desks that mark the employees’ Facebook anniversaries.

Virgin Airlines welcomes you to the party before you even enter the registration gate with rock music and the scent of freshly cut flowers. And stepping into IDEO’s San Francisco office feels like wandering into a Pee Wee’s Playhouse for creatives, with jars of colorful paper clips, pens, and other tools for creative expression lined up at the entrance.

But building a creative culture goes beyond colorful office design. Here are some of these companies’ core beliefs about how to successfully build creative work environments:

Hire Well And Trust Your Employees

All three companies have the “once they are in the door, let ’em loose to do what they do best” mindset. They aren’t looking for robots who can take on the persona of a corporate brand, but instead look for employees who will give meaning to their brand. At Virgin America, the characteristics they hire for include flexibility, passion, creativity, the desire to be part of something different, and comfort in sharing their personalities, says Luanne Calvert, chief marketing officer. “It was surprising that one of the criteria for my position was no previous airline experience,” says Calvert. “They really wanted people that had a fresh perspective.”

Support Ideas With Action

IDEO is dedicated to building and fostering creativity culture to the extent that they wrote The Little Book of IDEO, which features their key values. But culture doesn’t just come from a manual. “I had a creative crisis when I was wanting to create a creative environment, but saw that it was failing,” Clark Scheffy, managing director and associate partner at IDEO, explained. “You need to lead by being a part of the process.” Scheffy recently published a post on Medium called “Be The Leader You Wish You Had“, where he discusses his triumphs and challenges that came with maintaining a culture of creativity.

Virgin sets the tone for teamwork via a scavenger hunt during their orientation, and Facebook indoctrinates new employees on the very first day when they are shown a mural that says, “This is your company now,” and are invited to, “Leave your mark, make an impact.”

Invite Art Into The Work Space

Virgin Airlines invites their passengers to the party the moment they walk into their gate with music selected by whoever is working the counter that day.

Serena Mitnik Miller, residentPhoto: Matt Harnack

Facebook has an artist-in-residency program that invites artists to fill their walls with original art and sculptures. Drew Bennett, director of the program, explains the role of art in the workplace:

The mass majority of creativity at Facebook is communicated by voice or through the computer, so there isn’t a physical residue that demonstrates all of the creativity that is abundant within this place. So by building a program like this, it’s allowing the community that is already engaged in so much creativity to have a reference . . . a backdrop of their reality in a more tactile way. We not only bring in artists to think differently about where they work, but artists that create a dialogue that challenges the way people do their work.

There is a culture of feeding the creative forcefield at IDEO. The office space is filled with personal projects, from a mural of Instagram photos to a mystery project in the making that is comprised of discarded items donated from staff, to spontaneous acts of piano playing.

Creating all of those moments that seem like they are distractions, are actually getting me ready to roll.

If you want your team to be innovative and think outside the box, then create a physical environment that reflects that. “As designers you can’t expect to come to work to just roll up and create a hundred ideas,” says Ina Xi, senior interaction designer at IDEO. “So creating all of those moments that seem like they are distractions, are actually getting me ready to roll.”

Celebrate Individuality

All three companies celebrate individuality: Virgin America encourages staff to make the flight experience fun, which might mean putting a humorous message on the screens at the boarding gates mentioning that a rabid badger will chase passengers off the plane when it’s running late.

IDEO, meanwhile, has a process known as creative disruption. In other words, the things that would get you sent to the principal’s office in school, IDEO celebrates, and even expects. “I believe in intentionally creating moments—spaces, walls to draw on, the piano, culture-building events to program—to [help employees] bring their whole selves to the workplace,” Scheffy explained.

Passion projects in addition to work projects exist in the office space. IDEO’s “hero events” include personal storytelling events by the staff; learning new skills outside your job description is also encouraged.

“Bring your authentic self to work,” is one of Facebook’s mottos. When Facebook designer Caitlin Winner, noticed that the company’s icon showed a man in front and women behind, she redesigned the icon with a woman in front. Her creation was adopted and spread throughout the company. The rainbow filter for profile pictures that appeared after the recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality was created by two interns in their first few weeks and was adopted by 35 million people.

Create As A Community

All three companies expect leadership to come from all directions. Scheffy explained IDEO’s collaborative culture: “When you look at projects, you see there are three people assigned to it, but when you look at who billed for it at least 30 people influenced it in one way or another. So it’s silly for one person to sign their name to it. One of our partners called IDEO a ‘post-ego’ culture.”

No one owns the culture. Its autonomous and decentralized; we all own it together.

Facebook has a legendary sign that has become a daily mantra, “Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.” The sign was hung by an anonymous person and organically spread throughout the campus. Lori Goler, VP of People, added: “No one owns the culture. It’s autonomous and decentralized; we all own it together.” And Virgin Airlines expects their pilots to leave the cockpit and speak to their passengers when things don’t go smoothly.

Play Hard. Work Hard. Eat Together

IDEO puts an emphasis on creating rituals that involve food. Oatmeal breakfast is available every Thursday morning, there’s soup for lunch every Friday, and tea time, with cookies created by the food division, is once a week. Just like at home, the kitchen is a gathering place. Scheffy explains that sharing meals plays a critical role in community building and spontaneous cross collaboration.

Virgin Airlines organizes outings such as going to sporting events, and Facebook provides a wide assortment of extracurricular classes from print making, stamping, and woodworking.

If You Want People To Think Different, Make Things Look Different

IDEO decided to make its million-dollar view of the bay the main meeting space for collaboration for employees rather than close it off for their executives. When Virgin Airlines decided it wanted passengers to feel an element of hospitality, it designed gates to feel more like a hotel, right down to the registration desk lowered from the standard chest height to hip level to make it feel like a hotel concierge.

The actual structure of the Facebook building is bare bones: it appears they value investing in services for their employees and art on the walls over fancy furniture.

Celebrate The Art of Impermanence

“If you can come to work and have everything a little different every day, it keeps people on their toes and inspires them to ask, ‘What kind of problems can I solve today?'” Sheffey says. That might mean you find a new mural on the wall, or experience working in an open workspace with a variety of work stations including standing desks, seated desks, or couches, depending on your mood and the needs of the project that day.

Facebook changes the names of their meeting spaces sporadically and hosts “Hackamonth” for employees where they can work on a different team for a month. “It brings fresh ideas and new perspective to the process. Sometimes it gives the employee a renewed appreciation for the team, and if they choose to join the other team, we consider that a win if they are happier there.”

Remove Failure From Your Vocabulary

The folks at IDEO don’t see failure as a defining experience, but rather a given that is inherent in risk-taking. The design culture’s foundation is in prototyping and reiteration, hence their dominant approach is one of problem solving. If something doesn’t work, it’s just redesigned.


Facebook’s tolerance for experimentation and failure is so high that they joke that every summer an enterprising intern gets into the code base and, in an effort to learn the code and do something new, they leave their mark by taking the site down. Goler adds: “If you go nuts every time an intern takes the site down, then you are not fostering an environment of innovation and experimentation.”

Get Comfortable With Your Employees Pushing the Boundaries

“When I see designers pushing their personal edges, I get extremely excited,” Sheffy said. “Of course, it’s terrifying as well, and I prefer for it to happen at the beginning of a project when working with a client so we can recover and redirect if we need. But I constantly seek that magic space where we are challenged and pushing our limits. That’s where the best work happens.”

Calvert, of Virgin America, says the company understands that when you take chances, there will be mistakes. “That’s easy to say, but it’s really hard to do. But it is my personal obsession to foster an environment that creates this kind of creativity.”

Leah Lamb is a writer and storyteller based in the Bay area. She consults and gives workshops on how to foster creativity in the workplace.

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This article was written by Leah Lamb from Fast Company and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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