Your Workplace, Your Culture: Do You Like What You See?

How to enhance brand experience through the workplace.

Image via Death to Stock.

When you walk into your office, how do you feel? Would you bring a friend in to visit? Do you bring clients to the office or prefer to do business at a restaurant/café for a more convenient or inspiring setting? What does that say about your work environment?

Whether deliberate or accidental, the look and feel of an office is — or should be — a reflection of your organizational culture. Hard to define, culture is what you experience when you walk in the door, whether it’s a buzz of excitement or the sluggish vibe of resignation. A company can actively develop its culture or allow the culture to emerge organically. It can use workplace design to reinforce culture — or undermine it.

Imagine a company that wants to be perceived as future-focused and innovative. Yet, its workplace is a bland “cube farm” and the décor is boring. Or, imagine a company that specializes in healthy living products, but sells rotten bananas in the cafeteria.

Ideally, the workplace is where executive strategy becomes visible. By putting company values front and center, the office becomes a place where employees can feel engaged and do their best work.

Why does corporate brand expression matter?

As intangible as culture can be, how visibly a company expresses its brand, values, and culture through its workplace can have a very real impact on a business. Companies that actively develop their culture return 516 percent higher revenue and 755 percent higher income than those that do not, according to a Harvard Business School study of 207 organizations over 11 years.

Numerous studies have shown that reinforcing a positive company culture with a desirable workplace goes a long way toward employee satisfaction and motivation. Henry Stewart, author of The Happy Manifesto: Make Your Organization a Great Workplace, found that keeping employees happy leads to better customer satisfaction, lower staff turnover, less sick leave, and easier recruitment — all of which lead to greater growth and profitability.

Publicly traded organizations that received the Gallup Great Workplace Award experienced 115 percent growth in earnings per share from 2011 to 2015, while their competitors experienced only 27 percent earnings growth over the same time period. Studies also show that engaged employees are more customer-focused and care more about meeting customer needs, leading to increased customer loyalty and advocacy. In contrast, a disengaged worker might deal with your clients with a distinct lack of effort or energy, undermining any positive brand impression you intended.

Genuine expression of a strong and vibrant company culture can also serve to attract new talent. In fact, a Hassell Studio study found that the combination of organizational culture and workplace facilities outweighs salary and benefits as the influential factors in choosing an employer. Another study suggests that candidates weight a company’s status as a “great place to work” over other factors such as a reputation for great products, services, the best people or prestige in the marketplace. A reputation for having a great workplace not only helps attract and retain talent, it also helps you build a strong team without starting a salary war with competitors.

Beyond the logo: the brand experience

Simply plastering your logo on the walls isn’t effective for truly conveying the corporate culture. Details matter. Corporate brand expression and experience has to be more than a just a cosmetic effort if you want to get employees excited about their jobs and the organization. Employees want to feel good about where they work. Cosmetic changes can help, but basic comfort and hygienic conditions is a low bar.

Effective workplace expression can turn your workers into “brand ambassadors.” Workplace expression shifts the office from being just a comfortable background to being an active cultural lever for shaping employee perceptions, motivations and behaviors. It transforms a “place of work” into “the best place to work for.” If employees believe they are part of the best workplace, they are going to produce their best work. If employees feel they are an important part of an organization’s journey, they will bring their best effort to achieve your goals.

For example, employees generally want to feel involved, be a part of something larger and know that what they do is meaningful. Giving employees control over how and where they work can send a major message about empowerment and the company’s trust that employees want to perform at a high level.

Bringing culture to life

What do brand and culture look like in the workplace? Take a page out of the hospitality industry handbook: what are the ingredients of a great workplace experience? The best hotels consider not only the physical environment and amenities, but also the services available. You can take the same approach for your workplace. In fact, some companies are actually hiring hospitality professionals to realize workplace services that help employees feel valued.

In our view, a brand experience has six dimensions to factor into your workplace strategy. Is the experience immersive? Is it easy for employees to locate workspaces and resources and use technology? Does it allow for personalization of each employee’s wants and needs? Does it allow for collegial interactions, whether deliberate or accidental? And — the more difficult question — does it foster a meaningful experience?

For example, a health insurance company wanted its workplace to express its message of health improvement. Yet, from poor indoor air quality to long sedentary hours, the workplace itself can be hazardous to your health. So how could the company design a workplace that was hardwired for health?

The solution included 26 different types of work settings, ranging from quiet indoor spaces and collaborative hubs to WiFi-enabled outdoor balconies and the building’s public park. Stairs and ramps lead up from the office’s central atrium, inspiring employees to actively move between floors. The dynamic infrastructure encourages interaction and accidental encounters that can lead to more collaboration and innovation.

In the months following move-in, employee feedback suggested the design was working. Most notably, nearly 70 percent of employees said they were more productive and 71 percent said they felt more connected to the company’s mission of achieving better health.

For a company in the marketing industry, key goals were to convey the company’s values of being bold and creative, connect teams and drive a collaborative consultancy mindset. Also important, an appealing workplace would also inspire clients.

Today, the company’s office has an invigorating and energetic vibe designed around the five senses of sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell. Plentiful natural light boosts productivity, while multipurpose workspaces inspire collaboration and encourage employees to move around for different kinds of work.

Celebrating a company’s industry can also help create a sense of purpose. How would it feel to find a supersized paper airplane in your office lobby? That’s what a major office supply company did to visualize the idea of creativity and inspiration in what could be perceived as a mundane business.

In addition to the paper airplane art, the office is filled with creative photography of pencils, a Rolodex, a paper clip and other typical office items. The overall feel is practical, yet high quality, providing a visual reminder that office supplies represent business aspiration.

Embodying culture in your workplace

So how do you get started if you want your workplace to reflect your brand and reinforce corporate culture?

First, do your homework. Don’t assume you already know what is needed. Your company may be making major real estate investments to secure locations near talent. Why not put the same level of analysis into your workplace as an important tool for recruitment?

What is your current talent base? How is it changing? How many generations of workers do you have — and how do their preferences vary? The best way to find out is to ask through surveys, focus groups and occupancy studies. For instance, if employees say they need informal collaboration spaces that don’t require advance reservations, take them seriously.

Define your success. What key performance indicators make sense? Often, the right metrics include employee turnover rates and recruitment success. Create an ongoing feedback loop to govern the process as you go along.

Also important, don’t forget to include the right people. While employees should have input into a workplace redesign, you’ll need team members from communications, branding, hr, IT, corporate real estate and finance to execute the project. Today’s office is more than just paint and furniture — it’s a technology-enabled experience and you may need to make trade-offs to balance the budget. Having a well-rounded team will ensure the project stays on track.

Six ways to use space to shape a true brand experience

When it comes to actually envisioning the space, the following are six points to bear in mind.

  1. To thine own self be true. Every organization has a distinct personality, whether intentional or accidental. Clarify the purpose of your organization — how do you distill it into a set of values you’d like employees to embrace? A glitzy floor-to-ceiling multimedia display might be the wrong approach for your company, but a wall of plants might be just right.
  2. Practice on the inside what you say on the outside. If your company markets active wear with marketing campaigns emphasizing joy and fun, it doesn’t make sense to outfit the office in beige. Instead, you’d probably want a contemporary look and feel, with brighter colors and built-in features that inspire movement. Bringing the inside and outside together reinforces that sense of purpose that motivates people to do their best.
  3. Create places for social connection. Most people want to be a part of something larger themselves, so why not make it easy? Adding a café space, casual work lounges or collaboration benches can spur accidental encounters, instant collaboration and that “we’re all in this together” sensibility.
  4. Keep the workplace up to date as your business evolves. It happens all the time: a company invests in a great workplace for its particular workforce and it works very well. Five or 10 years later, the design looks dated and implies the company has stopped moving forward. Commit to refreshing the workplace periodically to maintain a high level of engagement for each incoming generation of workers. That doesn’t have to mean a complete overhaul, but a selective update to key features or color schemes.
  5. Treat all spaces equally. There’s nothing more disappointing than enjoying a dynamic and interesting lobby, only to find bland rows of cookie-cutter cubicles inside the office. Instead, consider all spaces to be deserving of attention, whether inside, outside, public or private, shared or individual.
  6. Include workplace tools and services. How easy or difficult will it be to actually work in the space? You’d be surprised how often companies neglect to include enough power outlets. Pay attention to where restrooms are located and how often they are cleaned. Consider a mobile app that employees can use to reserve a workplace or meeting room, or request a computer repair. Some companies are even including their own “genius bar” to ensure that no one’s work comes to a halt because their computer died. Concierge services are also making a comeback, enabling employees to take care of life and fun without skipping a beat during their workday.

The fact is, office design and workplace practices speak volumes about a company’s brand proposition. Done well, everything from wall color, furnishings, office layout and artwork to employee services and technology tools will express corporate culture and inspire organizational performance. Done without a thoughtful approach, the workplace nonetheless reflects corporate culture — but it might not be the culture you want.

Stephen Jay, senior vice president, strategy, at Big Red Rooster, a JLL company, and Vicki Eickelberger, senior vice president and managing director of the Columbus office of Big Red Rooster also contributed to this article.

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