Taking down the walls at work: Rakuten Crimson House

What has no internal walls, height-adjustable desks, floor-to-ceiling whiteboards, the latest in video communications technology – and a great view of Mount Fuji on a clear day?

Our new workplace! When Rakuten headquarters relocated last year to a new building in Setagaya, Tokyo, we did more than change our address. We changed everything about our office and the way we work in it every day. For example, instead of a traditional CEO office, with doors and waiting rooms, my own new workspace just flows into everyone else’s. We did away with all of the traditional offices. And to encourage communication and collaboration, there are no internal walls between workstations.

Office design innovation at Rakuten
Rakuten employees gather at one of the company’s many casual meeting spaces

Some of our meeting areas have high tables and no chairs – to encourage quick and spontaneous gatherings. Open staggered seating in some of the large rooms encourages discussion even at the bigger meetings. We’re experimenting with ping pong, bean bags, blackboards with color chalk, and sofa booths. The design of the spaces and the furniture encourages teams to actively collaborate, and not get stuck in long, boring meetings behind closed doors.

We’re also trying to loosen up thinking with an on-site acupuncture clinic, a gym, free meals three times a day, a library and quiet study spaces. And we encourage employees to join in clubs that range from salsa to robots and hula dancing.

Blackboards at Rakuten office
Chalk art adds a unique touch to workspaces at Rakuten

The open-plan design has a ripple effect on our everyday actions. Recently, when we were working on improving one of our most popular apps, the flexible layout allowed us to form a kind of spontaneous response team. Instead of a series of meetings held in closed-off conference rooms, engineers, designers, and executives gathered around a large desk located on my floor. And the results were stunning: The app improvement was targeted and launched that same day. In a traditional walled office, we might not have been able to locate all those individuals in one day, let alone bring them together in one big space to get the project through to completion so rapidly.

So many times, when we look for ways to improve our businesses, we forget to look around and consider the spaces in which we work every day. When we want to foster communication, generate new ideas and encourage teamwork, we need to start not just with office policies, but with the office spaces themselves. Human beings respond to their environments. As business leaders, we must consider all the tools we provide to our staff – including the workspace.

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