The Workplace Coolness Trap

Blogger: Rachel Park, Strategic Facilities Planning Principal | Princeton, NJ, USA
May 26, 2016

(May 26, 2016) When consulting on workplace design strategies, especially for the next generation-workforce, our clients usually have read the latest articles and have compared their existing workplace to Google. They wonder how to achieve cutting-edge trends in their own facilities. But sometimes this can't be further from a beneficial workplace strategy.

Often, the distance is epic between a Google-esque workplace and reality. Consider, for example, a government agency’s workplace that is currently a windowless, former warehouse building that houses 2,000 people. Due to the agency’s mission, this workforce requires the computational power and security of desktop computers, which means that workers are tethered to their desks. At a minimum, the agency wants windows, and it’s willing to push the boundaries for a better work environment for its employees. But is a work environment like Google’s appropriate here? Will it foster the culture that attracts and retains the talent that they want?

We need to ask our clients what they like about Google’s workplace and other fun work environments in high-tech, Millennial-driven organizations. Usually the answer revolves around the space’s “coolness” factor and its focus on enhanced collaboration. But bright yellow, red, blue, and green walls, playground slides, and shoulder-to-shoulder workstations might not support the client’s mission and vision. A workplace strategy must be compatible with its real-time needs in order to be successful. The bottom line is that a workplace isn’t “cool” if no one is able to get any work done.

Relevance, mobility, flexibility, and the next generation of the workforce are common drivers, regardless of if the workplace is for a government, academic, or corporate client. And of course, everyone wants what they don’t currently have.

We at HDR work from the following baseline in regard to workplace design criteria:

  • A place where one can both collaborate AND concentrate
  • A place where one can be an introvert OR an extrovert
  • A place where noise, privacy, and disturbance issues are non-existent

Then we add the wow factor:

  • Create visual connections to the exterior and access to natural light
  • Create activity-based circulation areas to meander through, rather than allocating space to only get from point A to B
  • Provide a range of amenities appropriate to the company’s culture
  • Push the boundaries for branding and look and feel as appropriate (this is where the Google workplace is exceptional—they brand their offices with local flavor)
  • Incorporate the latest technology… and a plan for the unknown

Focus groups, benchmarking tours, user surveys, and shadowing are all great ways to better understand your client’s current culture. That information can help shape the requirements and create the foundation for data-driven design. But don’t rely on data gathered from current employees—or copy another company’s philosophy—to develop a client’s workplace solution. Encourage them to be creative. Fulfill their vision with solid workplace design criteria. It will ultimately achieve the client’s own coolness factor that’s uniquely theirs.

Photo captions: Both pictures were taken by Rachel Park during a benchmarking tour of the Institute of Design at Stanford.​The photo of the white board is an example of how to activate a corridor. The photo of the huddle room is an example of how a company's branding and image can be incorporated into the workplace.