Workplace Aesthetics – Not Just Perks & Paint

WorkAestheticsAre workplace aesthetics just aesthetics? Or are they an expression of your unique identity and culture, secretly empowering your people?

I recently read a workplace design article in Aeon Magazine (Tech Aesthetics by Kate Losse) that looked at companies that they believe are dictating the future of work – blurring the lines between work and life. As evidenced through miniature golf on the roof, graffiti on the walls, private employee shuttle buses, free food, and log cabins transported from Montana forests into the corporate office. Are these just aesthetics? Are they indicative of a macro-trend in the workplace? Or rather, when viewed independently, are these expressions of each company’s distinct culture?

Full disclosure, you may have guessed from the clues above, but the organizational work environments that were examined here were the usual best-in-class companies – Google and Facebook.

I subscribe to the belief that every workplace is truly distinct.  Every workplace, whether you are conscious of it or not, is an expression of an employer’s past and future, values, behavior… its CULTURE. Workplaces are born – and evolve – from the natural course of business. But they must be maintained over time, ensuring they continue to empower your people and foster the right attitude, communication, and most importantly, the highest productivity. At first blush, free snacks may seem like a ploy to keep you in the office longer or to skip that lunch break, but for some employers like Bloomberg, the employee traffic patterns and free flowing food pantries spark chance connections, ideas and collaboration. There is a science to department store and supermarket traffic patterns to get you to browse and buy. The same logic applies here fostering innovation and new thinking in the workplace.

At Nestlé PURINA, you can bring your dog or cat to work every day. They even have a “bark yard” where pets and their owners play during breaks.  This may seem like a natural perk of working for a pet food company, but it’s actually a constant reminder of the living, breathing end user of their products. It’s their inspiration for future product development and in maintaining the highest quality and safety standards. Not to mention, it celebrates the bond between pets and people with the added therapeutic value of reducing employee stress. Those pets always put a smile on their employees’ faces, no matter how dark the day.

A workplace is more than furniture, snacks, toys, and paint on the walls. It’s a set of rituals and processes, too. Every organization has them, and they are all unique to their identities and mission. We worked with a national restaurant chain, TGI FRIDAYS, that has the most inspiring impromptu huddle sessions throughout the day – they refer to them as “Alley Rallies.” These sessions keep energy levels up…a critical part of ensuring that the consumer promise is delivered consistently in the restaurant. That’s particularly important when you think of delivering a feeling or experience such as a “Friday” every day of the week.

Let’s look again at the perks and workplace aesthetics of Google and Facebook. You may be asking yourself, “How can we compete with what Google or Facebook offer?” or “How can we do what Google and Facebook are doing?  Instead, you should be asking yourself, “What does that workplace say about their culture?” and “How can we create an environment that further promotes ours?” What works at Google may be counter-culture at your organization and could actually reduce employee productivity. What works at T-Mobile won’t make sense at Verizon. What works at Coca-Cola won’t fit with PepsiCo. Get the idea?

So many employers are quick to talk about the outlandish perks they offer and often forget to emphasize how they connect or reinforce the greater, more holistic story about what the company is trying to achieve – it’s purpose.

As Losse suggests, is the macro-trend of the workplace “an attempt to disguise work – with trimmings that suggest personality in place of smooth, ordered humming of a corporate workforce?” No, I don’t think employers are making a deliberate attempt to “disguise” anything. However, the best-in-class employers are deliberately architecting their cultures to deliver on their vision and business goals. They don’t start with the place in mind; they start with the purpose in mind. Then they design the place and processes to mirror that. That’s what Facebook and Google do.

In fact, it might surprise you to discover that Google’s workplace has been informed and refined by Social Scientists that have influenced everything from lunch lines to casual collisions (much like Bloomberg) that spark innovation. That miniature golf isn’t about play; it’s about productivity.

If you are to be inspired by Google and Facebook, be inspired not by the aesthetics or blend of work and play. Be inspired by the calculated approach they have taken to purposely design their workplaces to reinforce their culture. While newer companies like these have the luxury of designing their cultures, architecting the workplace from the beginning, you very likely inherited yours. And though this call for change might seem daunting, at the end of the day, you have the same opportunity. Roll out the blank canvas and re-architect your workplace with your distinct business goals, values, people and culture in mind. Start small. You’ll be surprised by the opportunity that exists and how much of an impact you can make at your organization – not aesthetically, but in real business value.

Michael Savage, the Director of Employer Brand at JWT INSIDE, is a communications strategist, storyteller and business partner. He has collaborated with executive leadership across a wide range of industries to develop employer brands that align workforces, attract talent and drive business forward. These employer brands have inspired enviable online and offline experiences – conversations, cultures and causes that employees and candidates alike want to join. Contact Michael at Michael.Savage@jwt.com.

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