Designing New Office Space Is a Great Opportunity To Influence Company Culture

 Elior North America HQ

Elior North America HQ

This article originally appeared on the CFID Studio Blog on March 22, 2018

By Brian Formato, Groove Management and Carrie Frye, owner and principal, Carrie Frye Interior Design

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I recently sat down with my friend and Charlotte's top restaurant and office designer, Carrie Frye of CFID Studio to talk about creating great office spaces. Together, we have over 50 years of experience helping companies navigate this big investment. It’s a major opportunity to engage employees and burnish your brand image. Yet most leaders manage an office change only once or twice in their career.

Here are our five best tips for getting it right.

1. The Goldilocks principle: Just the right amount of CEO engagement

BF:  During my 20-plus years in HR, I’ve been involved in a number of office relocations and renovations. In every case, the CEO was highly involved. Why does it matter to a Fortune 100 CEO what a division office looks like? The answer is culture. A company’s physical space speaks volumes about how the company operates and the importance it places on employees. 

CF:   As a designer, I want to have the CEO involved. The most successful office cultures come from the top. If a new hire sees the CEO working in the break room, they know it’s okay to brainstorm over a game of ping pong at 10 a.m.

BF:   Early in my career I worked for Western Publishing in New York. They were famous for publishing Golden Books. (Remember those little books with the gold binding?). An investment group purchased them and continued to expand them through acquisitions. The company no longer fit in its Third Avenue offices. So we embarked on a project to move to West 57th Street.  It took more than a year to complete, and it consumed most of my working hours, as well as many hours of the CEO. We debated everything from carpet color to office size. What amazed me was the amount of time the CEO and senior leaders spent on the project at the cost of revenue-generating activities.

CF:  It’s important for the CEO to set the strategic direction for a new office, but there’s such a thing as too much CEO involvement. My advice to CEOs: create a team you trust. Then let them execute your vision. Empower that team to do the research, guide the project and make granular decisions on things like carpet colors and finishes. That way, you can focus on running the business.

2.  Involve employees, from start to finish

CF:  The best designs begin with team members and the brand. But too often, design decisions are based on the personal preferences of senior leaders. Team members need to give input throughout the process, via surveys and other methods. As a starting point, you need to understand how people work and how various groups work differently.

BF:  I worked with a large company to consolidate back-office functions in a new building in Charlotte. After working with senior leaders to select a property, we began space planning. The next months were consumed with determining who would sit where – who would get offices, who would get windows, and who would get conference tables.  Everything was determined by level, regardless of people’s specific needs.  I still recall the IT staff putting new computers in the mail room because they didn’t have enough space. I learned from that experience that form should follow function, but often it doesn’t.

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CF:  You can get into a trap when you use office space to differentiate between levels of employees. It can be demotivating for junior team members who have great potential. I recommend focusing on paychecks and benefits to differentiate performance and level. Let your office space and amenities bring people together. When done right, work spaces create energy and can even contribute to trust between employees and managers.

BF: During the build out for the New York publishing company, things became very personal for people. Many were upset with the size of their office, or the partially-blocked view from their window. As an HR guy, I quickly learned that people believe their work-space says a lot about their importance in a company. 

CF: It’s human nature to think your assigned work space speaks to your value. One way to manage that is by offering employees multiple places to work. And by all means, give people plenty of opportunity to provide input about the type of space that works best for them. Then incorporate that feedback where you can. Throughout the process, it’s important for team members to hear messages from the top about the company’s mission and how their work supports the mission.

Here are some questions and topics to consider with your project team and designer during your research process:

  • Ask Millennials how they like to work. Consider the importance of community in the culture. Don’t forget about Gen X either! 
  • What cool features and hygiene factors matter most to team members? Coffee stations? Game rooms? A chill out room?
  • How much collaboration space do you need? Do you need enclosed rooms, or collaboration within workstations, or both?
  • Put yourself in the shoes of a job applicant. Is this where you would want to spend most of your waking hours?

BF:  The designer is crucial to this process. A good designer will study how your teams work today and help you understand how they will use the new space. A great designer will analyze that information in light of your strategic goals. They will help you create a space that meets those goals, gives employees what they need, and comes in on time and on budget.

3. Build your office around your brand: it’s one of your best recruiting tools.

BF: I joined Red Ventures when there were 200 employees. The company was poised to grow, but it was challenged to attract talent because few people had heard of it. They were known mostly for DIRECTV and Sirius Satellite radio, two products they represented. Red Ventures built a greenfield office with expansion in mind. The new office proudly showed off Red Ventures’ addiction to data analytics with large-screen monitors throughout the offices showing stats. As the VP of Human Capital, it was my job to attract talent. We put a Red Ventures basketball hoop in the parking lot, we built a game room, and we created a wall of monitors in reception to rotate our brands or show welcome messages to new hires and visitors. Our offices became a showcase for our culture, and open houses were our best recruiting tool. Red Ventures has since taken it to another level. Their new headquarters includes an indoor basketball court, yoga studio, game rooms, restaurants and other amenities. The result is an attractive office environment that’s also an amazing recruiting tool.

CF: Clearly the Red Ventures management team understood the value of your HQ as a brand platform. And they supported it with a major investment, encouraging project team members to dream big. It’s a great example of how a CEO can use the design process to drive business results.

4. Design with flexibility in mind

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BF: My final corporate job was at an industrial company in Charlotte. The buildings were stale, mostly holdovers from manufacturing days. We embarked on a project to redo one of the buildings. In the process, we wanted to supercharge a culture change, fostering innovation and entrepreneurship. The only problem was that the intended business unit was restructured during the renovation. The employees the building was supposed to house were permanently relocated; a new group moved in. Layout choices would have been different if the organization had considered the reorganization prior to building design.

CF: That’s one reason it’s so important to design offices with flexibility in mind. Consider how work will get done in the future. Pay attention to technology such as smartboards, digital signage, power sources and wireless capabilities, with room for new technologies, too.

5. Get the right team in place.

BF: Leverage the right people from the start not just your in-house team, but external experts, too. That would include an office designer, of course, but also someone with expertise in workplace culture. An organizational development expert can add a lot of value.

CF: That’s a great point, Brian. Often the office project team is enthusiastic about the changes, but that excitement doesn’t permeate the rest of the company. I recommend designating a team or person to manage the change. Their job is to educate employees, inform them about timelines and details, and promote a positive attitude around the change.  

To summarize:

  • Be both deliberate and aspirational when you build a new office. 

  • Consider your choices carefully – they reflect your corporate culture to employees, job applicants and clients.

  • Listen to your teams and communicate with them throughout the process.

  • Give yourself flexibility to reconfigure space as your business needs change.

  • Most important, make sure your new office space screams what you do!