By Vladimir Bosanac

When you look at the landscape of technology company campuses across the region, it quickly becomes apparent that the physical space of a neighborhood or a city block, or an available space inside a building will shape that campus. In Silicon Valley, the campuses, for the most part, tend to be wide and low. In San Francisco, however, they have to go up.

Okta, the San Francisco-based identity management web services company, found itself in one of those settings, and it made the best of the 210,000 square feet it occupies in Kilroy Realty’s 100 First Street building in the heart of the city’s bustling Transbay Terminal neighborhood. It is a space that 1,300 of its employees call home, and it is unmistakably Okta.

We’re not going to the suburbs

“There’s a glut of companies here that started in the mid-2000s,” said Armen Vartarian, Okta’s vice president of Global Workplace Services, as he described the landscape of the San Francisco tech scene. One of them was Okta, which was founded in 2009 by Todd McKinnon and Frederic Kerrest, and since then it has become a leader in the management and security of user authentication and integration into modern applications. The company went public in 2017, but it has not achieved profitability yet, and according to its public filings it has doubled its losses since 2015 but achieved nearly 10 times revenue since then. In fiscal 2019, the company collected nearly $400 million in revenues with losses over $125 million.

Image courtesy of IA Interior Architects & Sherman Takata Photography

Those may be growing pains, but its offices in San Francisco, designed by IA Interior Architects and brought into reality by Novo Construction, are a sign that the organization is trying its best to think long-term and create a setting that is appealing to its workforce. Its primary focus was creating benefits inside a campus where different programs across the floors in the building are there to ease the interactions between employees. As the company grows, Vartarian says, the institutional knowledge becomes diluted with new people joining the firm, so it focused on creating an appealing setting necessary to retain employees with a legacy understanding of the firm and its business.

“At the high level, it’s building program spaces throughout the stack and driving circulation through it,” he said of the company’s design efforts in the tower.

Image courtesy of IA Interior Architects & Sherman Takata Photography

Vartarian and team had to think about design in a flexible manner; it also had to be conscious that most of how work is performed today is likely going to change in the next few years. And so is the type of people that they will be hiring. Those employees will work in a different way than the generations prior, however, the priority will always be to focus on core urban environments that are proximate to the communities that make up the city, close to a high amenity mix, dense multifamily housing and public transit.

“It’s really important for us to be part of a community,” said Vartarian. “One thing we’ve talked extensively about ‘well, do we go build a kitchen here or do we go provide lunch and breakfast’ like some other larger tech companies. We’ve decided that no we’re not going to do that. We’re going to enable our people to go out on Tuesdays and Thursdays to support the community.”

Yet, the community is decidedly ubran, according to Vartarian. “Another thing we’ve done philosophically, we have said we’re going to be located in urban settings. We’re not going to the suburbs, we’re not going to provide buses to employees. It’s like ‘you’re the fabric of the community,’” he said.

This fabric is created in places where people live, and Okta hopes that the community will be part of where the employees also raise their families. “What my expectation is, because of that urban environment setting plus being located in proximity to dense multifamily housing, [that] we want people to work where they live and integrate their lives between what they do outside of work and what they do at work,” said Vartarian.

This also goes for its Headquarters South, where the company’s Silicon Valley presence is across 40,000 square feet in the heart of downtown San Jose at 300 Park Avenue. Highly urban and highly amenitized settings are what Okta is all about, and even though the setting may change, the philosophy does not.

The physical representations of the company’s values can be observed on each floor at the Headquarters North in San Francisco. One of the floors has a large graphic of a binary code for 2009, the year when the company was founded. Others spell out words “integrity, diversity, customer first, transparency,” all part of the value system that drives the company. The floors and the messages they convey are connected by a light system that unifies the spaces of the stack into a connected whole.

Image courtesy of IA Interior Architects & Sherman Takata Photography

However, in order to give each floor its unique identity, the layouts differ and give the employees a sense of diversity. “All the floors are designed a little bit differently from the color palette to the orientations of the conference rooms, just so that we didn’t have this cookie-cutter approach to everything,” said Vartarian. “We wanted people to feel just like you would in an urban planning situation, where you have different neighborhoods in the city, you want different floors and different environments. People can feel and should feel incentivized to go up and have meetings on different floors. It’s about the circulation [throughout the building].”

The space Okta inherited was from an era past. It was previously occupied by Delta Dental, and it featured an office space reminiscent of what most offices looked like in the ’90s: cubicles, an executive floor plushly decorated, a space that could have been found in the daily cartoon Dilbert. “Think about the challenges associated with that,” said Vartarian. “We had to demo most everything, the old cubes, old floor plans where the 15th floor was their executive offices with the brass finish, the cherry wood paneling, dark hallways everywhere.”

Okta knew it wanted to put together program spaces throughout the tower to drive the connection between the floors. The company wanted to build neighborhoods, and it worked with different teams to understand requirements that allowed them to calculate the number of conference rooms and seats for utilization purposes. The company also pushed seating out to the window line, which was done to create test fits for each of the floors, and then it started designing from there.

But it was always with an eye toward the future and how things will change in the work performed in this space years from now. “We’re designing space like a designer would build a product. We’re taking user requirements [asking] ‘what do you do every day,’” said Vartarian. “We still have to think about how that will change in the next few years…how they’re working today changes. While we’re developing something for them today, we’re thinking about how to create a system that’s flexible enough, so we can redesign the spaces accordingly.”

It was about functionality, and it was about creating something new, fresh and conducive to focus and work. “It’s interesting because it’s a change,” concluded Vartarian. “And people are not used to the quaintness, but eventually once they settle in, they’re like ‘oh wait, I am a lot more productive.’”

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