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Google, Microsoft, and Quartz are Embracing the Makerspace

A Dancing Cube created in The Garage at Microsoft

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As startups grow, the struggle to maintain an innovative company culture never stops. In recent years, communal “rec rooms” – where employees can tinker with side projects – have become an integral element in keeping staff engaged, generating new ideas, and averting burnout.

These workshops, makerspaces, and hackerspaces (the terms are often used interchangeably, but here are some definitions) typically resemble a nerdy man cave, with tools, wires, and gadgets centered around a woodshop table.

Google is well known for encouraging employees’ side projects – their famous 20% time program (which may or may not actually exist) allows employees to spend time on projects unrelated to their job. And while these projects can happen anywhere, Google Workshops might be the most appropriate spot.

“There is a feeling here at Google that all good things start in a garage,” Greg Butterfield, a Google engineering lab manager who oversees the workshops told the Associated Press back in 2011 when they revealed their workshops. “Larry [Page] wanted to create the same kind of environment he and Sergey had when they started Google–a sort of a playground or sandbox for pursuing their ideas.”

Microsoft calls their space The Garage; it includes 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines, soldering irons, Arduino boards, Raspberry Pis, Galileo boards, and a host of electronic equipment.

“The Garage story is really the story about how Microsoft is changing – and changing for the better – and The Garage has been a small contribution to this change,” Jeff Ramos, the senior director of The Garage told HTXT last year. “Large companies sometimes require structure but what is interesting and what we learned is that engineering and tech folks want the opportunity to explore their own creativity.”

Recently, when global business news site Quartz began planning a move to a new office they wanted to make sure the larger space remained true to the company’s roots. The site and its staff have grown fast, from a handful of people back in 2012 to over 200 today. It’s hard to keep the same company culture with this kind of growth, but one way they hope to do so is with an office workshop.

Quartz senior engineer (and husband of one of Uncubed’s staffers), Sam Williams, has taken an unofficial lead role in the workshop. In addition to his work on the Quartz app, he’s helped to create a lot of the quirky (aka “Quartzy”) projects around the office, like the weather bulb, which indicates the upcoming forecast; and the “now playing wall”, a slow TV office set up in the company’s previous office space.

He hopes that the workshop will encourage other employees, not just engineers, to take an active role in these projects in the future.

“Collaborating and problem solving on projects that aren’t your assigned tasks can help you collaborate and problem solve when you’re back at your desk,” Williams said. “Some of the most interesting things I’ve built for Quartz were not assigned to me and came from my own interest or obsession in something.”

Quartz workshop has a pegboard full of tools; the sort of table you’d find in a science classroom; shelves lined with past projects, both successes and failures; and a whiteboard with a suggested list of projects under the title “build me.”

Proposed projects include a live video feed to the company’s London office and a live map of all meeting room usage, “each meeting space will have a motion sensor to tell which rooms are actually free, not just not scheduled,” Williams said.

Quartz moved into their new space a few months ago and to kick off the workshop opening, Williams brought in a 4000+ piece Big Ben LEGO set, just in time for Brexit. Williams hoped employees would spend a few minutes a day building Big Ben, and, indeed, they did.

“It does seem to be the most communal work space in the office now,” said Williams.

Williams sees the workshop as a way for to keep a core part of Quartz, that spontaneous collaboration and creative thinking, alive as the company continues to grow.

“The idea behind the whole space is to capture the company’s culture in a physical space,” he said.

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