Many leaders understand that engaging people is essential for innovation. But few recognise a powerful tool right under their nose…the physical environment.

A cursory glance at the impressive campuses of Silicon Valley, or the brightly-coloured attention-seeking office interiors splashed across the web confirms a well-established shift in workplace expectations. Companies are offering more than a salary and pension package to tempt today’s workforce to give them their precious time. While savvy organisations use the workplace as a weapon in the ‘war on talent’, some are yet to see that taking things at face value is just part of the equation.

The visual appearance of work environments can express so much about an organisation.  Charting the trajectory of a company’s life stage, from start-up thrift to high-growth energy and even well-established cool, just look at Google’s 20-year path from garage, to lava lamps, to its new plans for a more ‘grown up’ campus in London.

Environment as a Talent Magnet

Attractive workplaces can act as a magnet for business – appealing to customers, clients, investors and of course employees to help deliver the company’s mission.  Without words, these spaces can speak a language – viscerally – that can cut through and resonate with people at a deeper level.

When I visited sunglass manufacturer Oakley’s HQ in California, I rounded the corner of a dirt hill to find myself staring directly at a torpedo.  A huge, post-apocalyptic fortress towered behind, studded with gigantic spikes and an ominous cavernous entrance.  Was it disarming? Yes!  Memorable? Etched into my brain. Somewhere I’d want to work? Not so sure. But that’s exactly the reaction the architect and one-time CEO wanted to provoke.  When we met, he said to me, “If you can come here and be inspired, not intimidated, you’re in the right place”.

But there’s more to attractive spaces than meets the eye.  The choice of elements, and the way they’re brought together, speaks volumes about what a company cares about.   And when organisations care about space, their space cares for their people.

Attractive Space, Attractive Bottom Line

Beyond projecting an expression of an organisation’s brand, culture and values to the outside world, the psychological impact of attractive environments unveils a very real business advantage. Studies⁠1 have shown a direct link between the attractiveness of a workspace with employee productivity.   People exposed to environments ‘enriched’ – with art and plants – work 17% more productively than those subjected to a stark, ‘lean’ environment.

So beware of the overzealous, but well-meaning office manager, keen to implement ‘clear desk policies’ and ‘agile’ working…they might accidentally be hurting business.  By focussing on the space and procedures with a mindset trained upon managing facilities as opposed to supporting people performance, the intangible impact of space is lost.

I remember being taken around the brand-new headquarters of a large media company by a very proud Facilities Manager. She was keen to point out the expensive desk systems and Herman Miller chairs.  When I commented on how beautiful the workspace was, she said under her breath: “Shame we have to put people in here!”

I think we need to do the opposite.  We need to focus on the people dynamics within environments, then design spaces that support them to feel, think and behave in the right way. Often the social aspects of the environment are the more powerful levers.  The two that impact innovation and creative behaviour most?  Permission and autonomy.

Permission

If an environment gives out signals that creative behaviours are not acceptable, people stop thinking for themselves.  During my first lecture to postgraduate students on a Masters in Agile Workspace Design, I was stunned to find that they had been suffering a dysfunctional class environment.  The room was set for about 60 people, whilst there were only 12 in the group.  Long lines of desks acted as multiple barriers between people.  A throne-like chair for the professor further amplified the division between teacher and student.

When I managed to wake the two slumbering students at the back, I a group task to make the space work best for the interactions we needed for the class.  The students removed most of furniture, discovering for the first time that the tables were foldable and on wheels! They created small group pods and plenty of space to move around.  The energy and connection between each other and the topic amplified immediately.  When I asked why they’d not done this before, they told me they hadn’t considered it ‘their place’ to change the space.

Autonomy

Autonomy is critical for creative thinking; without it, people give up when the going gets tough, taking the tried-and-tested route. In one company I worked with, I met someone who prided herself as the ‘mum’ of the place.  But she overdid this role and instead created a ‘Parent-Child’ dynamic, where these highly creative people stopped doing things for themselves.  Then she complained they were acting like spoiled teenagers!  This attitude tainted the culture and behaviours throughout the business.

So the act of giving people responsibility for their space can have a huge impact on the way they behave.  It can also impact their productivity.  People who decorate their own space are almost three times more productive than those in lean environments⁠2.

But what if you’re not able to involve people in designing the workplace? And what if they lack direction or the confidence to make the right spaces? There are techniques we can use to engage beyond inviting contribution.  Empowerment also comes through choice.

Curate vs Create – An Invitation to Engage

The way that environmental changes are approached will depend on existing cultural norms, skill level and creative confidence; often with the invitation to take part being as powerful as the act of participating itself.

We need to be mindful of the way that we invite people to participate in the environment because when people engage with their environment, they have a sense of ownership, citizenship – they care about it.  They also have a sense of autonomy.  If something isn’t working, they feel confident they can change things to make it work.

The way that you design, create and operate spaces are as important as the things you put in them. How you do it is as important as what you do. When you think about this, you can start to design exciting experiences for people that reach way beyond the colours on the walls or the texture of the floors.

The way you invite participation and engagement in an environment spans a spectrum from: creation to curation.  A created environment is one where the space is totally created by the users. Here, behaviours and activities might change from moment to moment, or there might be many uses for the space.  Eg: the student space.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s curation, where the design creation and operation of the environment is the responsibility of ‘others’ – not the users of the space.  This might be a space that is designed to elicit specific behaviours – a ‘fun’ space or a quick touch-down space, for example.

When you play with this spectrum, either as a philosophy or space by space, you can bring in the spirit and behaviours you want to emphasise for a culture.

Two examples to illustrate:

AirBnB

AirBnB curated the design experience, but rather than using external suppliers, internal architects took a team of volunteer employees through the process of designing and building shared spaces.  Whilst the invitation was open to all, only those who were passionate about learning the design process made it through a competition. The spaces are fully agile – no assigned desks.  Headsets, laptops and a variety of settings gives people autonomy to choose where and how they work best.

Zappos

Online shoe retailer, Zappos, sits at the other end of the spectrum.  Teams are given their own space, with a relatively high density.  Everyone is allowed their own (small) desk, and a kit of furniture to choose from, with the permission to layout and decorate their spaces as they want. The result? Not much visual cohesion, but lots of happy colleagues who work hard and play hard together.

There are two places I believe you don’t want to be on this spectrum: at either extreme.

Too much curation = “done to” you.  There’s no permission to engage.  Or, “done for” you.  A sense of entitlement and lack of appreciation creeps in. And if there’s too much (self) creation, with no guidelines or protocols for managing the spaces, they can descend into chaos and become overwhelming for people who are less creatively confident.

Wherever you position your approach, there’s no denying that when people have some ‘skin in the game’, they care more about the company and other people – they get better work done and contribute more.

As the world of work continues to change, the physical spaces that surrounds us act as a backdrop that can amplify the experiences people have – setting the stage for more productive and happy lives.  With faltering engagement levels and people looking for more meaning to their work, look no further than your work spaces for help – and have a play!

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20565201
2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20565201