Let’s Get Real: Authenticity in Design

Patrick Donnelly on how designers can help companies to align physical environments with core values.

At the Humana Cincinnati call center, exciting training rooms reinforce a company's commitment to investing in employee development. Photo courtesy of BHDP Architecture.
At the Humana Cincinnati call center, exciting training rooms reinforce a company’s commitment to investing in employee development. Photo courtesy of BHDP Architecture.

“The secret to success is sincerity,” they say. “Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” You could say the same thing about authenticity, a business goal that’s almost as coveted as a memorable logo, a well-established brand, and a robust annual report. Projecting an aura of authenticity impresses consumers, attracts clients, and helps to keep employees engaged. But if organizations try to “fake” authenticity in the workplace, their employees are the first to know. Savvy designers should look for opportunities to convey authenticity in ways that embody the essence of an organization, which will help the company to align the physical environment with their core values.

Conveying core ideals

For the purposes of workplace design, authenticity goes beyond the dictionary definition of “real” or “genuine”. Rather, it signals a company’s commitment to its core ideals and a tangible manifestation of its brand, expressed in ways that resonate in the daily lives of executives and the entire workforce.

This is CareSource. Welcoming lobbies like this one convey a message of openness and pride. Photo courtesy of BHDP Architecture.
This is CareSource. Welcoming lobbies like this one convey a message of openness and pride. Photo courtesy of BHDP Architecture.

An emphasis on authenticity can tie in with an organization’s venerable past. Design touches such as graphic storytelling can represent its roots, trunk, and branches—the past, present, and future. But that needn’t mean an old-fashioned, sepia-toned environment focused only on timelines of past accomplishments; a history disconnected. Think about Google’s East Coast headquarters in Manhattan. It’s an expansive, colorful campus featuring perks ranging from gourmet cafeterias offering free meals, a Lego play area, massage rooms, and halls where you see people walking their dogs. Authenticity for this company embraces creativity, collaboration, and fun.

When it’s done right, authenticity-centered design reinforces the organization’s mission and message, helping to keep everyone on track and influencing the vision for the future. It also can address the Holy Grail in business—enhancing performance—by tackling the tough issue of employee engagement. There’s an epidemic of disengagement, with only thirty percent of employees engaged in their work (according to a 2013 Gallup survey). One reason might be that—while marketing departments work feverishly to convey authenticity and core values to consumers—sometimes the messages are not conveyed internally. They’re getting lost in translation to the workplace.

Strategizing authenticity

Ideally, workplace design tells the story of an organization in a way that resonates with employees, management, suppliers, and customers. A company is more authentic when the messages in its workplace align with the messages it conveys to the outside world. In his book The Power of Story, Jim Lohr calls this “full engagement”: when the stories we tell, which have tremendous power to influence our organization, are consistent inside and outside of the organization.

At the Humana Cincinnati fitness center, well-designed fitness centers encourage employees to live out corporate-wellness programs. Photo courtesy of BHDP Architecture.
At the Humana Cincinnati fitness center, well-designed fitness centers encourage employees to live out corporate-wellness programs. Photo courtesy of BHDP Architecture.

The designer’s approach to creating authentic environments starts with a clear understanding of the company’s history, mission, values, and goals. Every design decision—from the exterior façade to the furnishings, finishes, and light fixtures—should tie in with the messages it considers most important.

Not every employer will want to ramp up the creativity level with freebies, pets, and play areas. But amenities in the workplace can be used to enhance the organization’s goals with authenticity in mind. Say that an organization wants to improve its internal messaging to enhance employees’ collaboration and socialization. The designer can use “spatial magnets” to help achieve this. People are drawn to certain physical features and activities. An interesting piece of artwork, entertainment, education, technology, or unique tools can stimulate new ways of working. Food and drink options, especially when they include space to connect socially, can be some of the best magnets that actually change the way people exchange ideas and achieve results. Highlighting such features also invites choice, which drives satisfaction and engagement.

Authenticity in action

One consumer-focused business placed a high value on transparency and openness in its dealings with customers. It wanted all managers and employees to share a vision of a welcoming, relationship-based, consumer-friendly company.

Yet this company’s campus was not in fact very welcoming for employees or visitors. To change that, they enhanced the areas where employees could gather, and designed cleared pathways for visitors that led to a congenial common area, rather than into a busy work area. For employees, it also underlined the company’s mission of customer intimacy and connection to the community.

Here, in a breakout area at Humana Cincinatti, access to inviting and flexible collaboration areas increase team socialization and knowledge sharing. Photo courtesy of BHDP Architecture.
Here, in a breakout area at Humana Cincinatti, access to inviting and flexible collaboration areas increase team socialization and knowledge sharing. Photo courtesy of BHDP Architecture.

Humana, a leading U.S based health-insurance company, has placed its noble purpose of making well-being possible at the core of everything it does, from helping customers age with dignity and freedom, to inspiring wellness for its associates internally by encouraging and enabling healthy choices every day.

In a major regional project, Humana’s leaders prioritized their ability to build and express their evolving culture as a company committed to wellness. Leadership also aimed to define a new and improved experience at work for associates. This commitment to well-being drove ideas and decisions for everything from the first-floor location of the fitness center—open, visible, and accessible from the main entrance—to locating the cafeteria nearby with expanded hours, services, and healthy food choices. When an idea for a running track on the roof of the midrise urban building was deemed unfeasible, the concept was repurposed by providing a defined walking path around every floor. Associates could take a wellness break even closer to their work. Mission-focused project decisions went beyond wellness for the individual associate to well-being for society through an environmentally friendly and sustainable design approach.

These examples reinforce how great design can incorporate the concept of authenticity. By working to understand the essence of an organization, designers can help create a work environment that embodies its brand and mission.

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