Let’s Talk About “Wow Factor” in Workplace Design

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There’s a lot more to successful workplace design and culture than meets the eye.

Image courtesy of figure3 (Mike Pratt Photography)

I can’t count how many times I have sat in front of a group of executives at the beginning of a project and heard the term “Wow Factor”. It usually comes out around the same time as that other ever-so-familiar term – “attraction and retention”.

Here’s how it typically plays out:

“We’re a very successful company with a great culture, but we need to change the way we work and our office design to attract the best new talent out there, while securing the great talent and culture we already have. So we need some real Wow Factor in this new design to attract and keep those people!” 

The next thing that usually follows is an ask to share all of the latest trends we’ve seen in the market, and what other companies have done for Wow Factor. The premise being that there must be some collection of magical trophy pieces a company can invest in to demonstrate commitment to culture.

It feels like it is high time we move past the idea that the success of a firm’s workplace is measured by the symbolic beauty of the interconnecting staircase, or the quirky charm of the slide in the lobby. In a time when a company’s investment in office real estate is being challenged by such disrupters as coworking companies and mobile technology, design needs to dig deeper beyond aesthetic to truly understand what it is that will impactfully connect staff with a workplace.

So, our question shouldn’t be what will give us a Wow Factor, but HOW can we design to support the growth of great culture within a workplace.

Recently I found myself in a conversation similar to the one described above. I asked the group to imagine the following:

The project has been completed, and a new staff member who recently moved to the firm from a competitor has met up with some old coworkers for drinks. The new employee is describing what it’s like to work for said company. The coworkers sit in awe of what they are hearing…”WOW”.

So, what is it that your new employee is describing? It likely does NOT include a staircase or slide. It probably has more to do with what it’s like to actually work there, and the opportunities to participate in and affect an amazing culture.

The real Wow Factor that people are looking for is woven into the TOTAL employee experience:

  • How are people working?
  • How much choice and control do they have over their work settings?
  • Is there a sense of possibility, activity, and interest in the workplace?
  • Are people interacting and collaborating?
  • Can employees manage their wellbeing?
  • Does the workplace feel social, lively, energetic, creative, engaging, fun?
  • Ultimately, how can this workplace support their work and allow them to succeed within it?

Let’s dig in.

To understand how we can best design for an organization’s needs, it is effective to help them to:

  • Engage their employees: They are the key to the Wow Factor. Their actions, beliefs and values will allow it to emerge and be perceived by others.
  • Define their mission, purpose and values as an organization: To further define how their purpose needs to manifest a connection within their workplace.
  • Embody and embrace their goals: Where their organization is going, what they are planning to achieve, what behaviors are essential to them. Essentially, the ideal version of their organization from both the employee and leadership lens.
Image courtesy of figure3 (Steve Tsai Photography)

The design of the workplace can play a significant role in facilitating and encouraging these behaviors, and we look for evidence of this in work environments.

Luckily, designers benefit from the work of researchers such as Donald Norman, author of “The Design of Everyday Things”, and numerous others in the fields of cognitive sciences, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience who over the last 30+ years have uncovered how people unconsciously make sense of the world around them. With this knowledge, we are able to design more effectively and intentionally by uncovering and designing to meet the needs of the people and organizations we design for.

A key principle in this area is that of affordance. Simply put, affordances are the qualities, cues, and signals within an environment that allow us to perceive something is possible. It’s in how the people using the space make sense of the physical and behavioral cues that allow them to determine the meaning, and ultimately influence how they feel, and behave within the environment. Whether deliberate or not, the design of an office shapes the use and success of the space based on how the design ‘speaks’ to the people using it. These design decisions need to deliberately create the conditions through the physical space that perceptively enable the behaviors, feelings, and mindsets desired. What is most important to understand about affordances, is that they must be made visible for all to see. If you want to encourage specific behaviors, you need to put them on display. The foosball table you put in the lunch room isn’t going to magically change your culture on its own.

In line with these designed affordances is the behavioral use of social proof to expand what’s perceived as acceptable, even expected within your organization through behavioral affordances. We’re social creatures; amongst other things we look to the people around us to determine how we should behave. This is why if we find ourselves having to make a decision between two restaurants, we will most likely choose the busy restaurant, where we can see other people enjoying food and socializing, rather than the one with fewer people.

In the office environment, the design itself signals what’s possible, but it’s in making those key behaviors visible that helps people adopt them and change the expectations of the workplace.

Changing what people perceive as possible or acceptable takes time, and these signals of “proof” usually come from leadership and management. Staff will always look to those in more senior roles to demonstrate acceptable behaviors.

With these principles considered, we can design a workplace that successfully affords the different opportunities and ways it can be used, and visually demonstrates these behaviors. The final and critical element to Wow Factor success is empathetic connection. Although this final component typically results from the first two, it is important to understand its role in the overall chemistry. This is an individual’s ability to see themselves in the behaviors of others, and using spaces in the ways they afford. What’s really a mind-bender is that this connection happens all the time on an unconscious level – we don’t even know we’re doing it. But it can be designed for. And when it’s done right, the impact can truly be felt.

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