Cool Looking Spaces – Let’s get one!
The workplace revolution is underway. Companies across the board are figuring out that they can use their physical environment to attract and retain employees, solving an enormous headache. At last check the unemployment rate was 6.6% but even at its high of 8.3% in 2012, there were 3.8 million jobs in the US that went unfilled for more than six months. The real limit to a company’s ability to reach its strategic goals is its ability to attract and retain the right employees. Imagine, with all of those unfilled positions, the number of companies that achieved far less than they wanted or could have. Is it any wonder that CEO’s are grabbing at anything that looks like it works at all including the latest trend “let’s get a cool looking space”.
I say that as if it doesn’t work but it actual does, a bit. In many cases creating a cool looking space will help with attraction and retention, but it usually does it by accident. Some of the natural characteristics of cool-looking designs bring out behavioral patterns that help with attraction and retention. The Towers-Watson 2012 global workforce survey listed the primary motivators for employee retention as 1-base pay 2- job security and 3-career advancement opportunities. (In an interesting side note, before the economic crash of 2008 pay and security were farther down the list so we can perhaps anticipate that the farther we get past that event, these may move back down the list.) If we consider “career advancement opportunities” we start to find the first contributor to the cool-space-employee-attraction effect. Research shows that human’s read their physical environment and just like body language, a potential employee being interviewed will pull meaning from the look of an office as well as from what their interviewer says about the company. A traditional office layout tends to communicate a much more hierarchical structure with less opportunity for career advancement. The much more casual open office sends a message of meritocracy and opportunity, something that is key to an employee’s ability to move up in the company’s structure and something that reinforces that “career advancement opportunity” that supports attraction and retention.
Cool spaces also work in another area. Across a number of retention studies, within the top 10 reasons that people stay at their current job includes “I have a friend at work”. The implication for businesses looking to keep their employees is that they could achieve some measure of success by supporting them having a friend at work. Here is how. Research shows that repeat casual interactions over time build opportunities for conversation which builds casual and then stronger friendships. The third time you accidentally encounter a stranger you might say hello and after months of running into each other you are likely to begin having real conversations. Many of the cool looking offices, provide ample opportunities for these accidental encounters and so support having a friend at work.
Cool looking spaces will do these two things by themselves: attract employees by providing them the visual message of opportunity and help them have friends by providing places for casual interaction. However, if you want to be strategic, you can do much more. For maximum effect you need layout, programs, and organizational structure to be aligned. An example of layout? Space Syntax, software originally used for urban planning that can be applied to circulation planning within an office in order to increase the opportunities for people to accidentally run into each other – increasing the chances of making a friend at work. An example of program? The Google workplace team has figured out that waiting 4.5 minutes for coffee is optimum. If employees wait less than that they won’t talk to the other people waiting and a longer wait means they won’t bother coming to get their afternoon espresso. The barista is there to increase the opportunity for casual interaction and the accidental encounter that can drive new friendships. An example of organizational structure? Research has shown that people form tighter trust bonds in groups of 6-8 or less. If the organizational structure is such that the working teams can be broken into these small groups, employees will have more friends and be more loyal. If the cool-looking office includes a layout designed to increase accidental meetings, an employee lounge with features to keep people there for 4.5 minutes or more, and a furniture plan that puts people in groups of less than 6-8, then that business has a home run.
You can’t always see the underlying decisions that make a cool space deliver positive attraction and retention results. The trick is to pay attention to behavior patterns and then design systems and spaces to work with those patterns. In order to maximize the return on cool-space investment, the CEO needs to understand why they work, which in fact has very little to do with cool looking.