What does your workplace say about you? The relationship between culture, brand, employee experience and office design | United Workplace

However famous or highly regarded your employer, it counts for little if your actual workplace is a dreary, outdated desk farm with no buzz, no personality, and rigid divisions of space. Such a workplace says your company has little interest in innovation, fresh thinking and positive change when it comes to its workforce. It says expectations are low, with employee morale and motivation barely registering as a management concern. And it hints that, perhaps, you might be lacking in ambition and self-esteem by continuing to work there.

On the other hand, if your workplace is well designed with great facilities and aesthetics, and the freedom to work where and how you want, that says your employer thinks you’re great and well worth the money spent on providing an attractive, flexible and stimulating environment to bring out your best. It says you’re a valued staff member whose wellbeing is a primary concern.

For the talented millennial seeking a role in a seller’s market, choosing between the two employers would be a no-brainer. It’s increasingly recognised that the workplace has a great deal to say about an organisation’s attitude towards the staff who earn its profits. Whatever it might claim about its culture and values, it’s all hot air unless the place where its people spend their working hours can back it up.

‘In my experience, being aware of what culture is and how it influences the motivation of a company, or department, or team of people is a lot more acute than in the past,’ says James Geekie, Group Design Director of Area. ‘It’s an interesting conversation we have with clients. My view is that it’s not simply about providing free lunches for staff, it’s the whole philosophy of a business and its attitude towards its workforce. It’s about making people love coming to work, and ensuring they feel trusted and empowered to do the best job they possibly can.’

The design of the workplace has a critical part to play. It’s not about bringing in a trendy architect to install weird and wonderful features that will play well in the media. It’s about working with clients, their office and facilities managers and staff to find out what makes people tick and what kind of environment will motivate and inspire. Sometimes a client will have a good idea of their own culture and how they wish to express it. Sometimes they need a creative partner who can help identify their core principles and how these can be realised. In both cases, the ideas and vision have to be interpreted in a practical way that is efficient, cost-effective and compliant.

James points to Camelot as an example of a business keen to refresh its outmoded offices in order to allows its staff’s enthusiasm and desire for innovation to flourish. ‘They were in three tired buildings where everything from the lighting to the furniture was dated,’ he says. ‘They had people who were already trying to do things differently, introduce new ways of working, and Camelot saw the move to the new building as a fantastic opportunity to support that.

‘We worked closely with their people in workshops and workplace sessions to thrash out the spaces and facilities they needed to bring about change. Before, people were enthused about the business, but didn’t really want to come to work. Now they’re excited and motivated in their new environment.’

How a company chooses to express its culture will depend on its nature, its objectives, and, crucially, the relationship between people and space. Are people stuck in one place, at one desk, or is there scope for them to move around and choose an environment that suits their particular activity or task? Do teams and creatives have the space they need to collaborate and brainstorm? Are there quiet areas for those who need peace and quiet to focus? Do mobile workers have comfortable, connected touchdown facilities?

Sometimes a company’s unique needs require a particularly innovative approach. Area’s design for Infosys EdgeVerve Systems, a company that is all about creativity and brainstorming for successive projects, incorporates a unique ‘laboratory’ style for the workspace that is ultra-flexible, using sliding doors and panels and adaptable furniture to reconfigure the space. It’s a great example of a company investing in the skills of its staff, giving them the tools they need to perform at their best.

Communal or multifunctional areas offer a rich opportunity to enable people to communicate, bond, stretch and grow. ‘These flexible spaces are the most utilised in a business,’ says James. ‘A space could double as a breakout area, a presentation or brainstorming facility, or a venue for a party or evening event. Space can be much more of an asset than some clients realise. A tea point doesn’t have to be just a teapoint. It can be a place for people to socialise and congregate, or hold informal meetings. Investing in adaptable spaces can really pay dividends.’

An office design project can be used to reflect other aspects of the corporate ethos, such as the nature of the office hierarchy. Large, luxurious corner offices for executives coupled with featureless rows of identical desks for other workers says something about a business, as does an open-plan layout in which managers sit alongside their teams. Designs that deliberately embrace differing temperaments (introverts and extroverts) and the working styles of different generations project a message of inclusivity.

Culture is critical in securing and retaining top talent. ‘Most people have a gut reaction when they enter a great space,’ says James. ‘It’s that sense of feeling excited or inspired, of wanting to work there if it’s an office, stay there if it’s a hotel, or keep shopping if it’s a retail space. Creatives in particular respond to a place with a sense of energy and excitement, with well-thought-out space.

‘You’re not going to attract a 21-year-old by telling them you’ll be sitting on that chair, working on that bit of melamine for 10 hours a day. But if you say to them come in, look round, you can work in any space that suits your mood and your task, then they know they will be trusted and empowered to work in the way that suits them best. Couple that with great facilities and aesthetics, blazingly fast wifi and easy, seamless AV connectivity, and you’ve got a great workplace where anyone would be proud to work.’

Culture is different from brand, although they are related. Brand is all about identity, and how the organisation wishes both its own people and the outside world to perceive it. And it’s about a lot more than painting everything corporate green or sticking a big logo above the reception desk.

‘Like culture, a brand is something that a business lives and breathes,’ says James. ‘It’s another conversation we have with clients. You can shout your brand or be quiet about it, but it should always be apparent to everyone walking into the building. It’s about imagery and text, artwork and colour – but it’s also about the experience, from how easy it is to park to the warmth of the greeting in reception and the efficiency of the wayfinding. And getting that right is essential to every successful workplace project.’

Branding is inextricably tied to décor and aesthetics. A good office design will reflect the nature of the business, influence perceptions, and create a positive visitor experience. Area worked with Clarins, for example, to transform the ornate, traditional interior of its historic London building into a bright, modern space with plenty of glass, straight lines and white glossy surfaces to create a clean, clinical asethetic more in keeping with its business. The Creative Arts Agency (CAA), on the other hand, needed to wow artists and visitors from the moment they stepped through the doors, achieved by a dynamic marriage of design and architecture with dramatic focal points and stylish contemporary furniture and finishes.

Homely features such as comfy sofas in reception convey a branding message, as do quirky touches and visual effects that engender a sense of fun. Area’s design for Agria Pet Insurance, for example, is full of bold graphic nods to the company’s pet-related business in the form of animal silhouettes. An engineering company working on a Thames-related construction scheme entertains (and surprises) visitors with glazed partitions incorporating fishtanks, complete with fish and frogman, and numerous references to London’s commercial heritage, such as bench seating apparently constructed from old-fashioned packing crates.

Biophilic features such as living walls, water features and natural finishes play a cultural and branding role, saying something about both the organisation’s care for its employees, its awareness of important trends, and its attitude towards the environment.

American or European companies opening UK offices often like to see the design values established in their home bases to be tweaked to reflect the local culture, making a point about their commitment to the new host environment. Wisconsin-based Epic Systems, for example, wanted its new Bristol HQ to retain the efficient space utilisation developed for its American campus while conveying a lively interest in British history, tradition and music. There’s a Farmyard boardroom as well as meeting rooms based on Shakespeare and Union Jack flags. Ardagh Group relocated its head office from Paris to London, commissioning a design that recreates the elegance and style of the Paris office while introducing warm colours and organic curves to create a homely, more British ambience.

Office design has never been more important – and it’s never been more important to get it right. Today’s workplace is an essential showcase of the organisation’s virtues and values. It’s a battleground in the fight for top talent. It’s a vital factor in the wellness and morale of staff. It’s an enabler of new ideas, new approaches, new working styles. Success can only flow from a genuine understanding of the organisation, what it stands for and what it wants to be.