What workers want. Can spending on a Google-style office make employees happy (and more productive)?

Charmaine Li 2013-08-30 10

There are egg-shaped meeting rooms lined with shag pillows, Irish pub-style lounges decked out with pool tables and a four-lane bowling alley complete with a disco ball. These are only a couple of out-of-the-ordinary workspaces you’ll get a glimpse at when visiting Google’s company culture page…

Named the best company to work for by Fortune for the fourth year running, Google’s unconventional office designs are well documented and there’s no doubt they play a role in its organisational culture. For startups, this raises a question: can an individualised office space with sleek design really help to create that elusive feeling known as “great company culture”?

Google Zurich

Google offices in Zurich

With a limited budget and long to-do lists, skimping on office design can be easy for founders scrambling to get their business off the ground. According to Professor Alex Haslam – who co-authored research at the University of Exeter in the UK in 2010 examining the psychological effects of design-led workplaces – people working in spaces decorated with plants and pictures were 17 per cent more productive than those working in lean (bare and functional) offices.

“Not only does office design determine whether people’s backs ache, it has the potential to affect how much they accomplish, how much initiative they take, and their overall professional satisfaction,” he stated.

“All this could have a huge impact for firms of any size, yet employers rarely consider the psychological ramifications of the way they manage space. By paying more attention to employees’ needs they can boost wellbeing and productivity at minimal cost.”

Interior designers enter the startup world

But Google’s not the only one embracing the idea that a creative environment can help stimulate inspiration and strengthen organisational culture. Several big-name tech companies are following suit – Dropbox, Instagram, Path and Asana have hired San Francisco-based interior designer Lauren Geremia to fit out their offices with custom pieces by local artists and fabricators.

So how does the process work? “I ask them what they want visitors to say when they leave the office, things like that, to get inside their head,” explained Geremia in an interview with Onoffice Magazine. ”Every client has a formula; a structure with rituals for how they eat, how they work, how they communicate. A lot of these companies are young enough that I’m able to have an input there, and develop it together.”

She added: “These startups have realised the talent is so indispensable that they’ve linked the success of the company to how happy people are in the workplace. That’s the main difference to old offices full of cubicles and drab carpet.”

For website-building company Jimdo, rapid startup growth and office expansion in its Hamburg headquarters led to the creation of a unique position titled “Captain Chaos”, which is currently filled by a qualified interior designer whose main responsibilities are to take care of creating a pleasant atmosphere and restructuring the workplace.

“We believe that the design of the workplace is important to company culture and team performance,” said Jimdo cofounder Matthias Henze. ”What you really want in a startup is flexibility that allows people to sit and work together in a way they would like to.”

An offbeat initiative that makes the company’s German office different is its vernissage area, where white walls are embellished with a mosaic of photographs or illustrations by several Jimdo employees – who are also artists. Though the idea of creating a vernissage originated as a way of celebrating the completion of new rooms, Henze said the artworks are now a permanent fixture in the startup’s offices.

Using art to communicate values

Located in the heart of London’s frenetic Silicon Roundabout is Acrylicize – a design studio-cum-art consultancy that has created bespoke art pieces for social games company King (creators of popular game Candy Crush), content discovery platform Outbrain and online gaming company Mind Candy (the brains behind Moshi Monsters) among others.

“We work with all kinds of materials and media and really strive to tell the client’s story though the art we make,” said James Burke, Acrylicize’s Creative Director. “Each piece of work that we produce intrinsically tells a unique story about that particular space, celebrating its character, values and personality in order to positively connect people with their environment.”

Outbrain offices outfitted by Acrylicize

He added: “Our projects are getting bigger and more ambitious – we recently did a big graffiti piece for a search engine who’s name I’m not allowed to mention.”

In an online survey conducted by the British Council for Offices (BCO) in partnership with International Art Consultants, 93.8 per cent of participants said that art makes the workplace feel more welcoming and 60.8 per cent of them feel it also stimulates creativity in the staff.

“People spend so much time at work and I think it’s important to have an environment that is inducive to being inspired and alert – why can’t a space be enlightening and inspiring?” Burke asked.

Is it a frivolous expense?

While the concept of commissioning an interior designer or art consultancy to spruce up the office and provide a unique identity to the workplace sounds appealing, it’s usually not a top priority for many startups – especially because tangible results on company culture typically take some time.

Google office on 8th Ave

Although there’s no universal agreement on what “good company culture” is or how to attain it, there’s no denying that workplace design plays a role in influencing in shaping employee behaviour. According to another recent study  by the BCO – titled What Workers Want – which polled 1,168 office workers in the UK,  60 per cent  of respondents in a non-traditional workspace said it improved their productivity.

“The report emphasises that staff retention, productivity and happiness can all be bolstered by being in-tune with modern workplace issues, which is something all occupiers should be aware of,” said Richard Kauntze, CEO of the British Council for Offices.

And in case you’re stuck on ideas, don’t miss out on what inspirational startup Vooza has to say about designing “not just an office, but an experience“.

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Image credit:
Google office images – flickr user Marcin Wichary
Jimdo Vernissage – flickr user Jimdo.com

For related posts, check out:

Meet the “Latvian Mark Zuckerberg” who’s secretly filling our heads with Startup Vitamins
It’s all about the beanbags – the Startup Hipster’s guide to office decor
The “Feelgood Manager”: is ensuring workplace happiness a full-time job?

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