Designing the Workplace, Strategically

Workplace strategy encompasses an organization’s goals and values – what is it trying to achieve and how is it trying to achieve it? These messages are crafted and delivered through a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle communication channels. When done well, they have a positive impact on employee engagement, loyalty, and innovation. When done poorly due to inconsistent, infrequent, or unclear messaging, they impair the ability to deliver on the company brand. Here is where strategic design comes into play.

Understanding workplace strategy

When a company embarks on a design or redesign project, it touches every aspect of the organization far beyond just keeping the rain out or the lights on. In fact, it presents an ideal time for all parties to think about how the corporate vision and values can be reflected in the work environment and thereby foster an environment that maximizes performance.

There are many ways to glean information in order to create an effective workplace strategy, but much of that input will not show up in a company’s annual report. Rather, insights about business drivers, aspirations, and goals come through observation, focus groups, surveys, and interviews. Further, it requires a commitment to understanding the culture in which people work for designers to be better prepared to address the physical space and technology issues needed to achieve the desired employee behaviors.

Much like a living organism, an organization needs to adapt, grow, and change to survive and thrive. For this reason, it is important to recognize the challenges the company faces, the forces shaping decisions, and factors driving its success. Then the designer can identify strategies to help resolve the issues and achieve greater business results.

People are the key

People are the most important factor in the success of an organization and the implementation of its workplace strategy. At the same time, people are often key contributors to organizational challenges. Henry Ford was quoted as saying, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” Effective design can help companies achieve that success through their employees by designing a workplace that facilitates engagement.

Disengagement among American workers has reached epidemic proportions. According to a 2013 Gallup survey, only about 30 percent of employees in the U.S. are actively engaged in their work. Those in the millennial generation are the most likely to say they will leave their current positions in the next year if the job market improves. Only 41 percent of employees said they really knew what their company stood for and what sets it apart from its competitors. Clearly, it’s a lot easier to compose an inspiring mission statement than it is to get employees to make the company’s mission their own.

Equally important, disengagement is an economic drain. According to the Gallup survey, it costs U.S. businesses $450 billion to $550 billion per year. Organizations spend a lot more on their people than they do on their buildings, and successful design strategy can help send a positive, authentic message, fostering a culture that makes it easier to attract and retain an engaged workforce.

Problems and solutions

Let’s consider some common workplace design challenges and some solutions that take workplace strategy into account.

  • Encourage more collaboration. It may help to configure desks and work spaces differently ­– in small clusters, for example, rather than in long rows. Another tactic is to use the more common office spaces more creatively by providing a variety of areas to meet, confer, brainstorm, snack, and socialize. Leaders may be unaware of design factors that actually impede collaboration, so it is important to look at how these barriers can be removed.
  • Get people on board with the mission. Using design to tell a company’s story and remind people of its vision is an often underutilized strategic design tool. Eye-catching wall graphics, for example, can use internal branding to emphasize messages that communicate the essence of an organization, moving beyond the warm and fuzzy motivational poster of the week. Design can impact actions by reinforcing behaviors that are important to the organization by strategically supporting the vision, mission, and attitude that produces results.
  • Improve staff communication. Moving toward a more open workplace is one significant design trend that can make communication more effective. But it is equally important to listen carefully to ensure a balance between better, more open communication and the need for personal space. Tearing down all the cubicles doesn’t work for everyone. One size may fit many, but it does not fit all.
  • Prepare to deal with a mobile workforce. The use of technology facilitates creative design that increases engagement anywhere, anytime, anyplace. When meeting rooms include the technology that enables easy, virtual collaboration (voice and video), hardware that helps people get and stay connected, and white boards and video walls that allow sophisticated ways to interact, share ideas, and work on problem-solving, employees can become more collaborative and productive as they work in teams, whether they are face-to-face or are miles apart.

The right questions

“We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong,” said Bono, the Irish singer, activist and U2 front man. Likewise, it is important for designers to ask the right questions to help create spaces that reflect and promote workplace strategies. Some of these include:

  • What are the organization’s goals and values?
  • What can companies do to energize and engage the workforce?
  • How can the workplace impact productivity?
  • How can design innovations help improve quality of life and work?
  • What does success look like?

Embracing a people-centered and strategic approach to design is a powerful way to face the constant change and challenges at work, optimize results, and reward efforts with success, satisfaction, and joy.


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