Whether it’s a minimalist piece, meant to spur creativity from within, or one with space for a veritable army of plastic figurines, meant to springboard one’s imagination through play, Curt Wilhelm will make you the desk of your dreams—if you work for Electronic Arts (EA), that is. His fanciful work spaces not only cater to employees’ whims but also make room for three PCs, a pair of servers, an Xbox One, a PlayStation 4, a tablet, a mobile phone, and possibly more, depending on the project.
Curt Wilhelm on…
Hidden Valley’s secret ingredient:
“At my old company (Frito-Lay), once you’ve learned how to make a potato chip, it’s pretty similar no matter what. All you’re doing is maybe changing the flavor from Ranch to Hidden Valley Ranch, even though it’s the same seasoning.”
“We’ve had issues where we’ve looked at buildings and the landlords aren’t interested in having a gaming company in there because of the way we dress. They’re concerned that we’re going to be coming in in flip-flops and T-Shirts, and they want to have a different image for their building. You get taken aback by that—you’re like ‘Really? I’m having this conversation with you?’”
The games he plays:
“My two favorites right now are actually Plants vs. Zombies 2 and Simpsons: Tapped Out. I’ve been playing Simpsons for almost a year now, and I play it every night for about an hour. I’m addicted to it. Plants vs. Zombies [is a game] I just started [playing]. Because I travel a bit and I’m out on the road, I like those games that I can play while I’m waiting in line or when I’m standing to board a plane.”
Crafting such environments to foster both creativity and productivity takes planning and experience. But for Wilhelm, EA’s vice president of global real estate facilities and employee services, the design of unique workplaces where games can be freely dreamed up poses the sorts of challenges he’s made a career of overcoming.
Not just for armchair quarterbacks and couch-potato commandos, the titles that EA creates and distributes are for gamers and nongamers alike. As a top-three global video game publisher, it sells titles for the sports faithful (Madden NFL, FIFA Soccer) and the more casual crowd (The Sims, Plants vs. Zombies) alike. Basically, anyone who has stepped into a college dorm room or a long airport line has probably witnessed someone playing an EA product.
More than 70 worldwide offices are needed to conceive and market the company’s diverse product lineup, and EA’s employee base runs the gamut from fresh-out-of-school Millennials to baby-boomer industry vets. So, rather than create cookie-cutter spaces, Wilhelm embraces diversity and tries to respond to the distinctive needs of EA’s various work environments.
After working in several departments at Frito-Lay in Dallas (including information management, corporate services, meeting planning, and facilities management), Wilhelm was recruited by EA to be its director of facilities. As a company, EA was centralizing its employee services, and Wilhelm saw the opportunity to do the same with its real estate department, folding it underneath the human resources umbrella.
Before, EA’s individual locations were not part of a system, which made it more difficult for the company to be aware of every lease or to plan out what it would do when certain leases expired. Wilhelm put the processes in place that allowed real estate projects to be tracked, including not only their leases but also their fit-outs and build-outs. This allowed for better leases and more beneficial locations.
Wilhelm also brought to the company a renewed focus on and commitment to individual workers. “Real estate and facilities’ whole existence is to create environments that attract and retain staff—because to create a game you need a mind; it’s not like you’re creating widgets,” he says.
Wilhelm chooses where a building will be located based on its workforce. The company’s diverse age range means that mass transportation is an integral feature, and proximity to restaurants, bars, and even the employees’ homes is considered. In conjunction with HR, Wilhelm uses city and regional heat mapping to find ideal office locations near where homes are clustered. Each office has to be a place where employees want to go to work and also where they will be comfortable.
Finding a landlord that’s the right fit is also critical. Typically, buildings run their electrical and HVAC systems between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., but ordinary hours do not work for EA, so finding a building that is flexible with its systems is important.
After making sure that each building meets basic team needs for accessibility, technology, security, and comfort, Wilhelm then works with employees to bring in region-specific amenities. Past extras have included a swimming pool, a fitness center with an indoor basketball court, and even a soccer field on top of a parking lot at the company’s Burnaby, British Columbia, campus in Canada. “Every space has to be unique,” Wilhelm says. “It’s what’s going to work with the group. Are they more into fitness? Or do they want to be next to inexpensive food?”
Wilhelm also looks for on-site or adjacent amenities that take you away from work. “Some offices have facilities to repair dings on an employee’s car, or a car wash, or similar types of services,” he says. “We have that on site so you don’t have to get away to do those kinds of things. [We also have] on-site or adjacent yoga, childcare, or even prayer and mother’s rooms, depending on the region. A number of offices allow pets to inhabit their walls. It’s got to be fun and creative.”
This doesn’t mean productivity gets forgotten, though. “I never want to have anyone miss a deadline or production ship date because of a facilities issue,” Wilhelm says. If he does his job well, the employees in his buildings never even notice the important part he has played in keeping their lights on and their systems running. Pick a desk, any desk: there you’ll find an employee whose work space allows him or her to be creative.
Let the games begin.
Check out these fun tours of EA campuses that we found on YouTube!