CapitalOne Digital’s New Architecture of Customer Centricity: People, Process, and an Awesome High-Tech Office


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Yesterday’s office is dead. Heave ho! You might remember it. The one that had drab hallways connecting large rooms, fickle overhead fluorescent lighting, row upon row of steel desks, a dusty water cooler positioned below a single analog clock, stultifying symmetry, and the subtle stench of industrial-strength pine cleaner. The one that has drab workers shuffling in at 9 am, out at 5 pm, and quiet chatter in between. “Thank you for holding this is Charlotte how may I help you . . . ?”

The office of the future will inspire life, creativity, and innovation. A workplace people will be proud to call their own. “Many of our employees take their families through here,” said Tom Poole, CapitalOne Digital’s Managing Vice President for Mobile Payments and Commerce, speaking about his company’s new Tysons Corner, Virginia digs. Poole conducted a tour for the University of Virginia Innovation Forum last month, and he described the tight connection between CapitalOne Digital’s office design and its strategic goals. CapitalOne Digital’s mission, to take complex products and craft simple, user-friendly solutions, flat out couldn’t be achieved in yesterday’s office, or anywhere else. Architecture as a strategic enabler. The CapitalOne Digital facility is as purposeful and pragmatic as any factory or distribution center I’ve visited, except here, they build financial application software for mobile devices and ATM’s.

CapitalOne Digital is not your father’s office. Far from it. In this location, the company employs about 130 people in 25,000 square feet – about 192 square feet per person, if you’re into the math. Capacious digs, compared to the average 193 square foot space enjoyed by the typical senior manager in the US. But enough stats, already. They just get in the way, because numbers can overshadow an understanding of what a workplace must nurture – in this case, tapping human creativity, and turning it into something delightfully valuable for customers.

Walk into this office, and right away, you get a positive vibe. Gobs of natural light. Noticeably fewer walls (I’ll get back to that in a moment). Comfy deep-cushioned sofas and chairs sprinkled thoughtfully throughout. Nooks and corners to pull off into and hold a conversation. Curtains suspended from the ceiling that can be drawn to quickly partition an ad hoc meeting space. Lots of fast-growth wood, and polished concrete flooring. Earthy colors of green, gray, and brown, but nary an item plundered from a Brazilian rain forest. Abundant felt markers for writing. Helpful, because it seems you’re never far from a surface you can jot on – whether a wall, glass tabletop, or pillar. This unconventional casualness stops miraculously short of seeming overdone. Yes, it appears that people can have fun on the job. Imagine! The air smells good, too.

Of course, an office wouldn’t be an office without desks. But here, I’ll rename these devices workspace furniture. The same piece can accommodate those who prefer to sit, those who prefer to stand, and even those who prefer to walk while working. Workspace furniture can be adjusted to preference, and treadmills are available if you choose to swap out your chair to amble while writing lines of code, or when talking on the phone. No “killer workouts,” though – these machines are ratcheted to just over 2 mph, tops. Oh, I should mention, you won’t see scattered about any framed pictures of the cat, the significant other, or The Fam cavorting on the beach. Employees grab a workspace when they start for the day, and relinquish it when they leave. Anyhow, nowadays most people store their personal pictures electronically. But you already knew that.

Unlike many facilities, where dedicated senior management offices on the exterior choke sunlight from underlings on the interior, at CapitalOne Digital you won’t find assigned senior management offices anywhere. No cube farm, either. Workspaces are positioned right next to one another, sans any physical separations. In fact, where there are fully-enclosed rooms, mostly they are for common use. These spaces can be requisitioned for temporary need by any employee, regardless of title.

Which brings up a question: without the ostentation of the boss’s dedicated office, how does CapitalOne aristocracy control the proletariat? I can only provide an oblique answer. This set up doesn’t upend CapitalOne Digital’s hierarchy. But, if having an impressive office all to oneself is a requirement for underscoring one’s authority, well . . . this company probably isn’t the best place to hang your hat. To work here, it’s easier not to cling to any preconceived notions.

Our guided tour provided a glimpse into some exciting resources that CapitalOne Digital has developed:

1. Device bar. Think petting zoo for mobile hardware. Go ahead, pick up a toy and fiddle with it. They’re available for all employees to try and talk about. Handle and share. On the day I visited, there was an Oculus 3-D waiting for someone’s attention. “I still don’t know how we’ll use it in banking,” Poole said, “but we keep it there for people to try.”

2. Social media command center. Flat screens surround the room, delivering a Radian6 waterfall of real-time social media information. The visual effect resembles Tetris, but housed within the cascading rectangles are Tweets from people around the world – sentiment about CapitalOne ranging from the good to the bad to the blatantly obscene. “We never filter what comes in here.” one employee told me.

3. Design Studio. CapitalOne Digital’s applications can be envisioned, mocked up on screens, and tested. For inspiration, an early Macintosh computer sits on a table, signed by Steven Wozniak on one of his recent visits to the facility.

4. Usability Lab. CapitalOne Digital conducts three to seven consumer studies every week. Observers sit in a small auditorium with tiered movie-theatre style seating, concealed behind one way glass. On the other side, a room can be configured where customers can be observed interacting with software. On the day I visited, the study room was configured as a generic bank office, authentic down to the cliché faux wood-topped desks and uncomfortable chairs.

5. Large galley and game room area. Poole believes that many valuable ideas are shared in informal settings, and that by creating appropriate spaces for people to routinely mingle, the company can better achieve its goals.

6. Room for outside groups to meet and congregate. In older offices, this space was called a lobby. But CapitalOne Digital seems remarkably transparent for a financial services company, as they encourage groups to visit, and to walk through and meet with employees. The room has a large capacity, and can accommodate catering and more than one open bar.

The casual observer doesn’t even have to know what CapitalOne Digital does to get a sense that the company places paramount importance on knowing its customers, fostering effective collaboration inside the office, and, by joining these two, enhancing ability for developers to create something valuable for people to use. Name one other workplace you’ve been where the physical surroundings so forcefully impart that message.


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