While many companies have focused on moving work-from-home employees “back to work,” Millbrook Companies—which comprises three marketing and communication firms—took a different approach. Instead of finding a traditional office building as its headquarters, with cubicles, watercoolers, boardrooms and corner offices, Millbrook’s leaders went on a mission to find the perfect space to encapsulate what hybrid work really means.
Millbrook founders Darius Fisher and Jesse Boskoff collaborated with husband-and-wife design team Chris McCray and Grace Hall of McCray & Co., an Austin-based design studio, to construct a “home away from home.” The team undertook the full renovation of a 181-year-old house and its surrounding property (formerly known as the Bouldin Estate) in a secluded, lush area in central Austin. The resulting Millbrook campus now includes five buildings, two pickleball courts, a soundproof booth for podcasting, a fountain and numerous gardens and outdoor work spaces.
This “home-away-from-home” concept offers a way for employers to recreate the comforts of home while encouraging collaboration in shared workspaces. Millbrook’s Austin-based employees, around 60 people, have the option to make their own hybrid schedules, coming and going from the historic property for in-person meetings or working from home as they please. In addition, the new headquarters serve as a frequently-used collaboration space for out-of-town employees and large company gatherings. For those visitors, and the daily employees, the designers set out to make in-office time much more enjoyable, engaging and collaborative.
Bridging work and home for Millbrook employees
When the designers and Millbrook company leaders sought the perfect space to carry their firms into the next decades, McCray says they wanted to improve upon the traditional dot-com model, “where you’ve got a big play area; big, great area; big, open feel; lots of pingpong and games and things that we saw were a big movement for Facebook and a lot of those companies.”
Instead, they looked toward bringing nature to employees, both inside and outside.
“When I saw Millbrook… it was just completely magical,” McCray says of the property, which is located near a ravine and surrounded by vegetation. It seemed to answer the question many leaders have raised about how to draw employees back into the work environment. “We’ve gotten very comfortable working from our homes and not having to get dressed up in a certain way or get in our cars and be in traffic,” McCray says. “There’s a lot of negativity about going back to work.”
So, Millbrook opted for a residential feel with personal comforts over edgier environments that might feature, for example, video games and snack food. For instance, employees’ dogs are welcome in Millbrook. So are sweatpants. The space allows for privacy, with areas for people to “peel off” and take phone calls or do independent work, and collaboration, with larger areas for coming together.
Build it and they will come
Acquiring the space was a feat in itself, Hall says. The renovation began with painting every wall white so they had a blank canvas. But before they could think about decorating, they had to navigate antiquated plumbing and a number of upgrades to make the property ADA-compliant while respecting the historic nature of the property.
Fisher wanted each room to have a different vibe, to accommodate different tasks and moods throughout a workday. They installed standing desks, comfy sofas, a homey but spacious kitchen for gathering over a sandwich and a large meeting room with a variety of seating that holds up to 40 people. There are private bathrooms where you can shower after playing on one of the two pickleball courts.
“The difference between Millbrook and the big office campuses we’ve come to associate with huge tech companies comes down to scale and style,” Fisher says. “Millbrook is 1.3 acres of gardens, fountains, pickleball courts and five buildings built with wrought iron, stone and millwork dating back to the mid-1800s, giving the property a lush and lived-in feel that more closely resembles a home in the country.”
This was the challenge, Hall says: “How do we make this so interesting and inviting that people working from home will be excited about coming over?” And, “Is this going to be a space that they are going to understand how to use?”
When people started trickling in, they didn’t quite understand at first that “the whole place is just wide open for you,” Hall says. But employees have been comfortably settling in since the Oct. 30 unveiling. And when employees do decide to work there in person, Fisher says the goal is to capitalize on that face time together.
“The homey feel of Millbrook was a result of our shared dislike for typical 9-to-5 environments, which, however stereotypical this sounds, are usually defined by fluorescent lighting, cubicles and industrial kitchen appliances,” Fisher adds. “And after the pandemic, when so many of us found we could be just as productive on our couches as we were at assigned desks, why not completely steer clear from the typical office model? We encourage them to make the most of it by scheduling time to touch base in person with the other people in their pods or eat lunch with new hires, so there’s value in being in the same place as their colleagues.”
The payoff of Millbrook’s new office space
The tangible benefits Fisher has seen from investing in this space has made the journey worth it, he says—and then some.
“The different teams that make up Millbrook Companies have come to work much more closely than we’ve ever seen, generating an unprecedented number of client projects that blend the different types of expert services we offer,” he says.
In the months since the unveiling, “we saw a significant uptick in new business and campaign renewals compared to those same months in previous years,” Fisher adds. “Although we do see the financial value provided from the investment in building out this amazing space, the return goes way beyond that. ROI doesn’t necessarily need to be money-driven—the return also comes from the value it has provided to our employees. Their happiness and enjoyment at the office is something that we highly prioritize, and we have seen great returns on that front.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo courtesy of ©John Davidson