Beyond Dilbert – The importance of design in the workplace for employee engagement


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This is a draft excerpt from the upcoming book, What’s Your Green Goldfish? Beyond Dollars: 15 Ways to Create Employee Loyalty and Reinforce Culture

The second INCH

The second inch on the journey to driving employee engagement is Shelter. Pure and simple… Space Matters. It sets the stage for how you both work and interact on the job. Beyond functionality, the physical environment should be able to tell the story of the company.

According to Mark Fidelman,

The best workplaces find a way to integrate their organization’s culture and mission. In the future, these workspaces will also help your workforce to become more effective. An adaptive workplace – where physical objectives and software adapt to the working style of the organization and not the other way around. Work in the workplace will become more human and more results oriented. (Source:

To Cube or Not to Cube, that is the Question

The word cube has four letters. The traditional view is that its a bad four letter word. No one aspires to work in a cube. My sister in the early 90?s worked at a benefits consulting practice in Philadelphia. Positioned in an interior cube and bathed in flourescent light, she would joke about the desire for an office. The senior team at the firm (all men) occupied them all. “No balls, no walls” was the inside joke.

monkey row zapposSome workplaces mandate that there are no offices. Zappos, for example, is entirely a cube culture. Even the management team sits in an area affectionately dubbed as “Monkey Row.” Other workplaces take the concept one step further. No offices or cubes, just rows of desks with no barriers like at the agency Gyro.

Maybe the answer is somewhere in between open and closed. Mary Lee Duff of Interior Architects chimes in,

gyro officeThe traditional concept of the high panel Dilbert cubicle has definitely been diminishing. The drive today is for workplace settings to be more open and collaborative with a strong emphasis on flexibility. For some clients that means going into benching systems, for others it is simply lowering the panel walls and being able to offer greater control over how to reconfigure one’s own space.

Moving from I to WE

Flexibility is key, but so is diversity. Here is an interesting take by Steelcase CEO, Jim Hackett,

Celebrate the shift of what we call the ‘I’ space to the ‘we’ space… Space has to enable and empower information in ways we only imagine… (across) a continuum of I and we work… people need a range of settings to accommodate focused, collaborative and social work in both open and enclosed environments – in other words, a palette of place.

Let’s have a look at a Baker’s Dozen of companies who’ve tackled space (the “Final Frontier”) with a little something extra:

Open and Flexible by Design

kayak green goldfish #64 (#64) has an open office environment. In the words of Paul English,

I sit out with the product managers. We hold design meetings at one another’s desks throughout the day. We do design interaction like that, where everyone can hear and anyone can jump in. If anyone needs to make a private phone call, there are a few private offices, but our general philosophy is that an open environment facilitates intellectual intensity. Most engineers are introverted. Here, when people overhear a discussion, we encourage them to walk over and say, “There’s another way to do that.” (Source:

In an effort to foster collaboration among the 15 employees at brand communications firm Trevelino/Keller (#241), there are no offices at the firm’s HQ, located in the King Plow Arts Center. The space is open, “both philosophically and physically. We jokingly say, ‘There’s no place to hide.’ ” says agency principal Dean Trevelino, who empowers his employees to make their own decisions to get the work done. “Everyone expects each other to work hard and do it with no ego.” (Source: Atlanta Business Chronicle)

David Clarke, BGT Partners (#737) co-founder and managing partner, purposefully designed the office to have an open feel with “huddle rooms” for staff to verbalize any issues or ideas. “So often, IMs or e-mails get misconstrued. We want to encourage people to come back and forth and explore all other areas of the company if they’re interested. We can only tell you to do so much.” (Source:

According to Jörg Pierach, Fast Horse Inc. (#296) founder and president,”We don’t have offices, cubes or even assigned desks, which leads to greater collaboration while we’re in the office, and allows people to be equally productive when they are away. Employees have the opportunity to work from virtually anywhere they have an Internet connection on a regular basis. And, during the summer, our office is closed on Fridays, allowing people to work from home in the morning and then get a jump on their summer weekend in the afternoon.” (Source: Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal)

TD Bank (#448) has “FlexWorkPlace” pilot program to accommodate changing and flexible work patterns. It features redesigned floors that include more meeting rooms, no traditional offices, and a “collaborative” cafe where employees can meet and work in a comfortable and informal setting.

Eat, Pray, Work

According to some reports, the cost of stress in the workplace is approaching $300 billion per year in absenteeism, tardiness, poor performance, employee turnover, accidents, and stress-related workers’ compensation claims. What’s a brand to do?

ebay prayer rooms green goldfish

The online marketplace eBay (#123) offers two prayer and meditation rooms.

Employees can sit in silence—in minimalist rooms decorated in earth tones, accented with cushy pillows, floor mats and fragrant flower buds—to catch a few critical moments of solitude and to decompress from the myriad stresses of a workday. (Source:

partner + simons phone boothsNo one at Partners + simons (#131) has to leave the office to make a private phone call. Instead, they slip inside one of two large, soundproof tubes in the company’s coffee and kitchen area where they can chat away. The South Boston ad agency has two cellphone booths that look like something out of the transporter room from “Star Trek.” Trudy Almquist, chief financial officer at the agency, said that employees were regularly using conference and meetings room for private calls to their spouses or their children’s schools.

“Conference room time was at a premium, and this was a better option,” she said. “It’s just a place to talk to your doctor, adoption agent, your spouse, or whatever you have going on in your life. It’s to have a little privacy in a public place.” (Source:

Forget hours of toiling under harsh lights, in a stiff chair or trapped in a maze of confined spaces. At Alberici’s (#323) headquarters, the light pours in through walls of windows, the chairs are ergonomically designed to draw out body heat, and the space is so open and sleek that it feels as if a library and modern art gallery hooked up. “It’s a little overwhelming when you walk in,” says project engineer Peter Nuernberger. A native prairie and white wind turbine outside offer a preview of the building’s environmentally friendly design. Inside, bamboo covers elevator walls, and employees dine on heart-healthy subsidized lunches. Everything whispers of the company’s innovative culture—with an emphasis on whispers. In fact, the company even plays white noise throughout the day. “It is kind of like working in a library,” says Jay Reiter, director of marketing. (Source: St. Louis Business Journal)

SAP Canada’s (#450) headquarters offers a quiet room for employees who need a quick break during the busy day.

Working Towards Home

The professional services recruitment firm Goodman Masson (#335) doesn’t just want to make a stable home for its employees — it wants to help them buy one too or pay off an existing mortgage. If the London-based financial services recruitment firm’s 135 workers save 20% of basic pay for three years their employer will add 33% to that deposit/lump sum saving — or 50% if they add bonuses too. (Source: The Sunday Times)

Employees of Paramount Staffing (#548) that are purchasing a home for the first time receive $5,000. (Source: Business Insider)

Kitchen Confidential

clockwork active media systems kitchenAt Clockwork Active Media Systems (#289) the best gathering of the day is the one that takes place every single morning. Clockwork has a large kitchen table that seats about 25 people. Every morning the table is packed with employees starting their day with a cup of coffee and chatting with each other about the work that needs to happen that day. That organic kind of gathering speaks more to the strength of Clockwork’s work culture than any holiday party ever could. (Source: Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal)

Just three years ago, HOK’s (#325) office space in St. Louis was a federal bankruptcy court with courtrooms that “looked like bad funeral-home chapels,” recalls vice chairman Clark Davis. So when executives decided to renew their lease at Met 1 and moved all of their employees to one floor, the world-renowned architecture firm did what it does best: transform the space into one of the most environmentally friendly offices in St. Louis. “We essentially created a loft-quality space inside a 20-year-old building,” says Davis. Now the office is an airy environment with a prime view of the Arch and Busch Stadium that everyone can share. Stationed in rows of desks, architects and designers debate blueprints for a project in Saudi Arabia. “Almost everything we do is based on collaboration,” says Davis, “so we wanted to encourage communication and bring people together.” An open kitchen serves as a common meeting place. Glass-walled “huddle rooms” offer intimate spaces for employees to chat. Even 85-year-old founding partner Gyo Obata works inside a small cube surrounded by other creative minds. (Source: St. Louis Business Journal)

The young workforce at Unruly (#372), average age 29, thinks jobs are good for personal growth (90%). Aroon Sahani, a finance accounts assistant, joined as an intern. These would-be “unrulies” earn more than the minimum wage, get the first crack at any jobs coming up and meanwhile, get to eat the same croissants as the boss. Christian d’Ippolito, group head of international sales, says: “There’s this energy in the company that makes everything exciting . . . there’s a particular culture here, a tight sense of community and it’s a lot of fun.” (90%). Matt Cooke, chief technology officer and a founder, says: “It’s very collaborative and social. We aren’t dictating — we are inclusive, and small things make a big difference, like a big kitchen.” (Source: The Sunday Times)

XPLANE (#708), which was founded in 1993 and had $8.4 million in revenues last year, also has an “Inspiration Wall” — a designated space in the office kitchen where employees can post anything they have created or want to share that inspires them. “It helps us express new ideas and personal findings which foster surprising connections, creative collaborations and, at its simplest, helps us all know each other better,” Adams says. (Source:

Sleeping on the Job

aol napquest green goldfish

At AOL (#126) headquarters in NYC, perks include access to NapQuest, a specialized room where employees can grab some winks in “nap pods”, and relax in one of many electronic massage chairs. (Source:

Garden Party

SOMC green goldfish #111

Southern Ohio Medical Center (#111) started a garden and invited the staff to plant their own vegetables or come pick them on their lunch break. Consisting of two small greenhouses and several large raised beds, the garden turns out kale, broccoli, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, rhubarb, strawberries, and lettuce. (Source: World at Work)

Money and Choice

Sweet workspaces. Asana (#143) gives each employee $10,000 to spend on office setup. The most common choice is a sweet motorized desk that allows a person to sit or stand by just hitting a button (because we all know standup desks can save your life). (Source: Mashable)

Today’s Lagniappe (a little something extra thrown in for good measure) – Beyond shelter, how about other basics like clothing. Here are two strong examples:

Clothes make the Banker

umpqua bank clothing benefit

Employees at Umpqua Bank (#42) are given $500 TWICE per year to purchase professional clothing for work. The amount is then deducted from their paychecks until paid in full in as little as $10 per paycheck. So no interest on the credit cards. (Source:

Dress Code

The right atmosphere is important. At BBS Technologies (#802), that means striving to replicate a college campus’s freedom and intellectual excitement. The dress code? “You must wear clothes,” CEO Rick Pleczko said. Otherwise, Pleczko said he wants everyone to feel comfortable at the software company as he tries to combine a casual atmosphere with a professional environment.”We care what you produce and deliver, but not so much how you look,” he said. The company, which has 164 employees in Houston and 217 worldwide. (Source: Houston Chronicle)

All of the examples in this post were taken from the Green Goldfish Project. The Project is a quest to find 1,001 examples of marketing lagniappe for employees. Green goldfish are the little signature extras given to employees. They help differentiate a company, reinforce culture, increase retention and drive positive WoM. The book, “What’s Your Green Goldfish?” will be published on March 29, 2013.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Stan Phelps
Stan Phelps is the Chief Measurement Officer at 9 INCH marketing. 9 INCH helps organizations develop custom solutions around both customer and employee experience. Stan believes the 'longest and hardest nine inches' in marketing is the distance between the brain and the heart of your customer. He is the author of Purple Goldfish, Green Goldfish and Golden Goldfish.


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