Commentary: Offices ‘Talk’

March 1, 2006
By Aditi Sant
What story does your office tell about your corporate values?

By Aditi Sant

Whether designed to do so or not, the workplace sends strong messages about corporate culture. Corporate culture is best described as the unique character of a particular organization, and includes visible and invisible expectations, core values and beliefs, corporate ethics and rules of behavior. Corporate culture is basically "how things are done around here" and is expressed through the company's mission statement and other communications, by what people wear to work, and among other things, the architectural style or office interior.

With a shrinking labor pool of knowledge workers, the most intense competition is now not for capital or technology, but for people. It has been shown that workspace design relates to top organization performance, attraction and retention. A recent ASID study found that the physical workplace is one of the three most important factors influencing people's decisions to accept or leave jobs. Compensation was the number one factor, while benefits and the physical workplace were essentially tied for second place.

The workplace is a living manifestation of its brand, but the use of the workplace to its full potential in this manner is largely untapped.

WHAT DO EMPLOYEES REALLY ATTEND TO?A recent Cornell University study looked at space as a message about corporate culture for job seekers, by studying employee workplace preferences for management level jobs. This research completed by the author found that examining employee attraction was supported by a similar study done in a large financial institution for employee satisfaction and retention. Research findings show that job seekers pay attention to micro design features of the workplace environment and use these to differentiate among their preferences. The physical factors that the job seekers commonly attended to were: overall office layout, ability to use the workspace in multiple ways, privacy, light, office furniture, windows, workspace size, order and cleanliness. Less frequently mentioned factors included finishes, color, workspace personalization, doors, artwork, food and plants.

Layout was the most commonly expressed issue. Various studies have shown that open office environments are not popular; with privacy, both visual and acoustic, being issues of great concern. Visual transparency in the workplace has been shown to encourage interaction, which, in turn, leads to learning, innovation and problem solving. But as transparency increases, so do the opportunities for invasion of privacy. Similarly, noise has been shown to be detrimental to employee physical and psychological well-being, motivation and, at times, productivity. The challenge for office planning and design is to balance issues of visual transparency with noise.

With the changing nature of work processes and technology, employees are now valuing a workplace that can be used in multiple ways and adapt to various uses. Examples of flexible space use include rolling furniture designs that can be configured in various ways, operable doors, the ability to choose seating orientation, desk lamps that can be controlled by individual users, flexible seating arrangements in breakout rooms, the ability to meet at diverse locations to conduct meetings of various sizes and types, including virtual meetings and the ability to visually connect with other people easily and without physically disturbing them.

The study also showed that employees attend to furniture design and quality of finishes. Ergonomic designs and comfortable chairs in common areas and breakout rooms conveyed a feeling that organizations cared about employees. Dark wood finishes conveyed a serious and professional undertone to business, while bright colors showed a more risk-taking kind of an attitude. Order and cleanliness were associated with hierarchy, a moderate work load and the company was perceived to be more sensitive to employee issues beyond work. Light, both natural and artificial had a significant impact on space preferences. Ample research supports the idea that sunlight regulates body chemistry and positively impacts health and behavior, resulting in higher productivity, less absenteeism and improved overall mood.

THE EMERGING NEW EMPLOYEEThe demographics of the emerging workforce are changing. Organizations are now faced with younger employees, a higher proportion of women and a job description that requires a more horizontal section of skills. Age, gender and previous work experience certainly affect workplace preferences.

Some earlier studies have found that women give a greater emphasis to the work environment than men. The author's research findings showed marked choice differences by gender. Doors were perceived as barriers by women, but as a mechanism for control and a way to maintain privacy by men. "Quality" and "openness" were important criteria for women, while "order" and "privacy" were more important criteria for men. Women preferred executive looking spaces and open environments, where they felt more a part of the entire office. Closed environments were a big turn off for women who felt "trapped" in their work environments, while they were perceived as "working dens" by men. Disorder and color were turnoffs for men; the same were perceived as indicators of creativity by women.

Image was important for younger job seekers, while functionality and noise were important for older job seekers. Closure was a big turnoff for younger job seekers, while extremes of panel height and color were found irritating by older job seekers. Similar results were found for experience. More experienced employees felt that they could learn to appreciate the benefits of the open office environment and seemed less driven by the aesthetic quality of the office space. Less experienced job seekers, on the other hand, reached stronger conclusions about various aspects of work from images.

These results have direct implications on office planning and design as well as workplace branding; and though they are specific to employees in management level jobs, the heart of the issue remains the same.

THE OFFICE REALLY TALKSSpace conveys strong messages about the corporate culture of the organization: some aspects may be more strongly represented than others. The Cornell research focused on six key elements of corporate culture. Findings showed that hierarchy, opportunity for learning, ease of forming social networks at work, opportunity of self expression and creativity were strongly expressed through physical settings; while cultural diversity was weakly expressed through the physical environment.

Subjects looking for management level jobs preferred to work in environments that were perceived as orderly and hierarchical. This gave them incentive to work toward a higher position: perceived as a reward for their hard work and success in the organization. Hierarchy was associated with the layout and symmetry in office layouts, height of the cubicle panel, cleanliness and order in the workplace and dark wood finishes.

Employees perceived their jobs as primarily analytical jobs that needed information organization and analysis, and preferred physical layouts that reflected symmetry and order. Open office environments received negative reactions unless the employee was specifically looking for a trading floor. This is in tune with the idea that there may be a downside of excessive social capital attributed to the open office plan. The challenge is to enable interaction when necessary while enhancing employee ability to focus and concentrate. A campus-like approach to the office may present a solution: spaces designed for specific activities such as classrooms, break rooms, libraries and quiet study areas.

Also, hierarchy was considered more important than opportunity for learning or expression of self and ideas at work. These findings are a little surprising given ample research and widespread belief that employees look for "learning" organizations.

Another interesting finding was that job seekers were very uncomfortable with places that came across as very creative and innovative. While organizations, as well as designers, are trying to promote creativity in the workplace, it may be noteworthy to listen to what the employees really want. This, of course, would probably not be relevant for jobs in say, research or design.

CAN DESIGN EMPOWER BUSINESS?In a world of talent wars, where organizations compete with one another for recruitment in terms of pay scales, training dollars, benefits and perks, it is important to recognize that the most important thing people are looking for today is an organization that fits who they are, what they stand for and how they like to measure success—all of which results in value alignment. It is also important to recognize that first impressions are critical and that decisions may be made on sometimes incomplete information.

As the approach to the workplace becomes more people-centric and less place-centric, what emerges is a new possibility for the workplace to be utilized as a strategic business tool. Workplace design can cause both the facility visitors and workspace users to download a style and feel about the organization. Facilities can thus create and be a vehicle for desired cultural end-states and empower organizations to align peoples' skills and energies towards organizational goals and contribute to synergy that elevates individual talents. It is important to bear in mind that design and planning should respond to the user characteristics as well as organizational values.

  • Aditi Sant is a strategic planner with NELSON, an integrated services firm providing architecture, interior design, engineering, strategic planning, information services and workplace services. A recent graduate of the Masters in Human Environmental Relations Program at Cornell University, Sant was involved in a great deal of research studying the relationship between design, workplace culture and employee attraction, as discussed in this article.

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