Can a Call Center Be a Showcase for Enlightened Design?
In 2014, when San Francisco–based Airbnb decided to set up a new customer service center in Portland, the company hired Bora Architects (formerly Boora) to design a space in Old Town. The “CX Hub” became one of the first of a wave of enviable tech offices in town. Bora’s Michael Tingley tells us how his firm reinvented the call center.
What’s different about this office from other projects you’ve worked on?
Airbnb was really intentional about creating an environment to not feel like a call center. So one of the first things was to not consider it a place where you sat at a desk and put partitions around you, creating the awful environment from the Dilbert cartoons. In some respects, this environment feels like the antithesis of an office.
How did you cut down on ambient noise?
It’s a challenge with phone calls because people don’t hear their own voices, so they tend to speak louder. And then everybody in the environment is speaking loud to make sure they’re heard. Airbnb has advanced headset technology with a masking system in the microphone that helps cut out noise coming in from the periphery. And it also projects your own voice through your headphones, so you’re less likely to raise your voice.
Did the space itself help with that, too?
We were basically looking for materials that will absorb sound. In an office environment, the two best surfaces to do that are the ceiling and the floor. In big, open environments, the walls are not very effective. So we installed cotton padding in the ceiling and walls. The floor was all hardwood, and Airbnb wanted to keep that, so we put in area rugs, and also a whole series of nooks that are felt lined.
This space uses an open floor plan sprinkled with different nooks and crannies modeled after actual Airbnb properties. How does that help?
Creating a variety of settings and giving people choice is becoming a pretty consistent thing in office environments. The fact that so many people work on laptops, it gives people the flexibility to find a space to suit their mood or where they can interact with other people spontaneously. I would characterize it as part of the “Starbucks phenomenon.” You see people at coffee shops all the time, working away at something alone, but they want an environment where they’ve got other people around them and it feels relaxed.