Leveraging Design

Businesses must rely on more than physical space to succeed—and three universal truths of good design can help them achieve profitability.

by Kevin Salwen

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published online by DesignLeveraged.org, a website dedicated to covering stories and news on how the application of design in the workplace affects corporate profitability. Reprinted with permission.

For decades, businesses have viewed their work spaces as “overhead,” a necessary evil of spending on desks, carpet, and pricy lighting. But now, smart companies are shifting their thinking on design: The firms doing the hard work to get it right are reaping the benefits right down to their bottom lines.

Rest assured, we aren’t just talking about the eye-popping Google and Facebook offices, those kingdoms of uber-chic chaos and (dare we say) indulgence. Their designs work great—for them. But most of Corporate America doesn’t fill its seats with 20-something engineers eager to pull all-night hackathons.

Why is design critical for the rest of us? Consider these three factors: Real estate costs are rising roughly 10 percent a year, a scorching war for talent is underway (and expected to worsen), and the demand for innovation amid global competition is acute. The workplace is where it all comes crashing together. Yet, only one in four U.S. workers say that they have optimal workplace environments, according to a 2013 survey by San Francisco-based architecture, design, planning and consulting firm Gensler.

So for this report—with the support of the IIDA and BIFMA—we set out to learn how business productivity and design best align. We read stacks of reports from the design community and academics. We interviewed dozens of business experts. And we visited a wide variety of smart companies around the U.S.—not just the design darlings, but the cash-generators and industry-innovators, large and small, to understand how they deploy their work space to further their business goals.

Our conclusion: Design may be the single most underleveraged tool in the business world. From our research, we were able to isolate a number of factors that allow leading businesses to leverage design in profitable ways. Three of the concepts, we learned, are simply universal.

universal truth no. 1
The most powerful designs reflect your organization’s culture. Companies must start by knowing who they are—and how their employees do their best work. Not many do: A 2013 Gallup survey revealed that only 30 percent of U.S. employees are actively engaged in their work. How likely is inspiration amid that apathy? Put another way, a foosball table isn’t going to magically unleash innovation.

“A lot of these companies decide to try to get on the Best Companies to Work For list by turning to their design, but that drives me nuts (because) it’s working on the window dressing,” says Kimberly Scott, a former Hewitt Associates project leader for that list and now the director of the master’s program in learning and 0rganizational change at Northwestern University. “Doing those cool things doesn’t make you a best company to work for. It’s really about fitting the culture, more through policies and practices instead of a coffee bar and dry cleaning services. Start with your strategy.”

universal truth no. 2
Today’s knowledge workers require variety and agility to get the job done. They need multiple venues for their multiple selves. Quiet, heads-down places; meeting spots for two or three people; and accessible gathering places to collaborate via video. Working at the same spot for eight hours a day is long over—or should be if you want the best from your work force.

And that dovetails with some startling good news in ...

universal truth no. 3
Savvy design can reduce real estate costs. Rising real estate prices and advances in technology are squeezing average individual work space to a record small 150 square feet on average or less, compared to 225 square feet in 2010.

But smaller personal turf leaves room for a vibrant mix of “wow” cafe-style spaces, tricked-out kitchens, or comfy nooks for quiet—while still reducing the overall footprint. Research bears out the counter-intuitive idea. In a 2013 survey, the Mancini Duffy Center for Workplace Innovation found that 83 percent of respondents are assigned to a dedicated work space. But 85 percent of respondents said that they would use alternative spaces if provided. “It was an ‘aha!’ insight,” according to the New York-based architectural firm.

Those universal truths aside, how are successful companies bolstering their bottom lines though design? We learned eight critical elements, each told through a company profile, featuring Coca-Cola, Pirch, 3M, Manpower, Quicken Loans, ThoughtForm, Red Hat, and Zappos. You can read more at www.designleveraged.org.