At Work at Play

Shopify Ottawa and Montreal were featured in Canadian Architect’s September issue this year. For the readable .pdf, click here.

For many of us, the office is where we spend the majority of our days. We rise in the morning, commute to work, clock in our eight hours and repeat the process the following day.

At Shopify, this routine is entirely similar—but what happens between nine and five deliberately breaks from the traditional mould. The Canadian e-commerce company challenges and redefines the classic workday by blurring the boundaries between business and play.

“We often spend more time at the office than we do at our individual homes,” says Greg Scorsone, director of internal operations at Shopify. “Because of this trend, it’s very important to our company that we establish office environments that are comfortable and inviting for all.” Shopify achieves this goal through the unique design of its offices, located in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal and San Francisco. For the Ottawa-based headquarters, the company partnered with local architecture firm Linebox to give their philosophy physical form. Though the original Ottawa office was modest in size, Shopify gradually occupied seven floors in an Elgin Street high rise to accommodate its growing team.


“With every new floor, we get more and more excited,” says Amanda Ferguson, intern architect at Linebox. “As a firm, we are constantly pushing the limits of what our designs can do, and every iteration feels better than the last.”

Linebox’s approach begins with a different theme for every floor, in an effort to appeal to the various personalities, interests and tastes of Shopify’s employees. The first floor has European flair, complete with arched windows and red phone booths. A few floors above, a transportation theme repurposes shipping containers as office pods.

A nearby “unveiled” floor has the same exposed ceilings as the other levels, but also includes architectural details such as a wall made of roofing tiles. The tiles provide a unique interior touch while serving to break up and control sound in the large open space. “We wanted to expose the construction of the ‘unveiled’ floor in order to show employees how the space is made,” says Josée Anne Pronovost, one of the project’s lead architects. “It’s the most modern, clean and structured theme of all.”


On another floor, a Canadiana theme pays tribute to Shopify’s roots. Entrepreneurs Scott Lake, Daniel Weinand and Tobias Lütke founded the company in 2004, after developing an online platform to sell snowboards. Upon realizing the potential of their website, they released the platform to allow other developers and companies to build their own online stores.

“The Canadiana floor pays homage to the Shopify founders,” says Courtney Burdette of Shopify. “Linebox designed a little snowboarding chalet to celebrate the original idea.”


Other notable themes include the “retreat” floor (with a cedar-lined, faux-sauna room) and the “urban” floor (with a fully functional go-kart track). A video game room and a giant slide connecting one floor to another offer similar opportunities for playful breaks.

“These types of fun, active spaces are important in a work environment, because they serve as outlets,” says Scorsone. “When you’ve been working on a piece of code for an hour or two, your brain can get fried. If you ride a go-kart or sit down to play a video game, you’re bound to feel better. It’s the equivalent of going for a walk to reset and re-energize.”

“It’s also about camaraderie,” he says. “These playful activities are ice breakers, and if you become closer with your colleagues, you’ll work better together in the long run.”


This sense of conviviality is common across the Shopify offices. Open concept layouts allow constant opportunities for social interaction, ensuring creative collaborations on a daily basis. In the Ottawa office, interaction is largely achieved through a grand, central staircase that connects the different floors.

“To build the staircase, we had to cut directly through the existing concrete floor,” says Scorsone, stressing the intensive engineering required for the task. “We removed 180,000 pounds of concrete and brought in the stringers—which came from a bridge manufacturer in Thunder Bay—through the windows of the building.”

The staircase quickly became fundamental to the office space. Ferguson says that employees use the staircase more than the elevators, constantly buzzing between the various floors. Seating areas carved into the steps allow co-workers to pull off and engage in conversation.

“Right from the beginning, Shopify wanted Linebox to develop a design that would encourage accidental collisions,” says Ferguson. “The staircase achieves this by encouraging people to frequently cross paths.”


Though social interaction is important, the company is also mindful of the need for privacy and seclusion throughout the day. “Our team is very focused on making sure that both extroverts and introverts feel at home in the office,” says Scorsone. “Our office pods have about 15 to 20 people in them, but if you want to work individually for an hour, we have little spaces that you can go to alone.”

“The variety of spaces in the Ottawa office allows people to move around and adapt as their moods and energies change,” adds Ferguson. Cozy, one-person-sized nooks are located on every floor, tucked in corners to take full advantage of unused space. Like the themed floors, some nooks embrace the skyline views and bright light, while others hide in shadows and darkness.

This play on light and dark can be found in other Shopify offices, too. In Montreal, the company occupies a second space designed by Linebox—a refitted former press hall in a heritage building downtown. With windows on two sides, the floorplate contains naturally bright and dim spaces.

Pronovost says that although the heritage building has character and charm—including an old brick façade and rounded windows—it was challenging to work on the tighter site. Unlike the Ottawa headquarters, the Montreal office occupies a single floor.


“We had to treat it as one big space, while still creating smaller zones for those employees with different personalities and needs,” she says. “One of the most successful rooms in Montreal is the lounge, where the cafeteria, coffee station and games room are located. Everybody tends to congregate into this social space.”


Like the Ottawa office, the success of Montreal’s design was achieved through experimentation and trial runs. Andrew Reeves, partner at Linebox, says that the client encouraged this practice of observing and adjusting. “When we’re designing, we’re constantly realizing that some things can be done better than others,” he says. “Shopify is very understanding and supportive of this trend. The company encourages us to go back and do things again, or to tweak things if our vision doesn’t quite execute the way that we thought it would.”

“How people react to spaces is quite unpredictable,” adds Pronovost. “It’s important to evolve and to learn from how people use spaces—to be attuned to that and to respond to their needs.”montreal3


This sense of evolution in the workplace is not unique to Shopify. Many of the company’s design features bring to mind Silicon Valley, where high tech corporations have evolved the traditional office into an environment that appeals to millennials. When I toured Shopify’s Ottawa headquarters, the majority of employees appeared to be in their 20s and 30s, but Scorsone is quick to say that they don’t define themselves as a millennial workplace. “Our goal is to make a space that’s comfortable for everyone, regardless of their age,” he says.


Ultimately, Linebox’s priority is clear: to develop a series of designs that fit Shopify like a tailored suit, supporting the creativity and distinctiveness of the business itself. “We’re always changing, reinventing and rethinking things in the design,” concludes Pronovost, “just as Shopify has reinvented and redefined how we sell things online.”