At America's Best Workplaces, Good Design Reigns Supreme

July 15, 2011 Posted In

By: Barbara T. Armstrong

If you’re a chief executive today, odds are your mind is on talent and corporate culture. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2011 Annual Global CEO Survey, attracting and retaining talent is “at the top of the agenda” for execs everywhere. The global war for talent was a hot topic this year at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos.
One critical component of corporate culture is a company’s workplace—its physical environment for its treasured talent. Yet most CEOs ignore, overlook, or just don’t get that.
We at Kahler Slater, a global design enterprise, set out to study the physical environments of the Best Companies to Work For in America: 150 organizations, small, medium, and large, recognized by the Great Place to Work Institute. (Our own enterprise is proud to have been among them for seven years running.) These best companies are unsurpassed in attracting and retaining talent and in financial performance—and our research found that they reinforce their cultures in their physical environments. The way they do so shows four common characteristics. Here are those characteristics, presented in the form of questions to ask yourself about your own workplace:

1. Is there external and internal brand alignment?

The most successful brands are more than sets of products or services. They are experiences born of an emotional engagement between a company and its customers. At the best companies that experience is also expressed internally. For employees, the dots connect. The brand is aligned internally and externally.
At Mattel, for example, where “play” is the toymaker’s brand, employees shuttle between buildings in a Hot Wheels van and showcase their favorite toys in their personal workspace. At Cascade Asset Management, an environmentally minded recycler of computer components, sustainability reigns supreme, from a wholly green headquarters to employee nameplates handmade from recycled computer pieces. And at JM Family Enterprises, a top owner of Toyota dealerships, the corporate campus bows to Japanese culture, with Japanese gardens, architecture, and artifacts.

2. Is the spirit of your culture visible?

Through countless choices, both big (office location) and small (interior signage), the spirit of a company’s culture lies in plain sight. At the best companies that spirit starts with first impressions—often from the outside in—and stays clear and consistent throughout the work environment.
For instance, Genentech, the biotech giant, has its South San Francisco headquarters on DNA Way, a nod to the company’s roots in genetic research, and outdoor banners there put human faces on lives changed by the work of Genentech employees. At Dixon Schwabl, a full-service ad agency, the playful company culture is displayed by a cool slide connecting two office floors. (For many years, the agency also had a padded Primal Scream Room, for conquering creative blocks.) And at the online retailer Zappos the open, non-hierarchical culture insists on cubicles for everyone—from Call Center reps to the CEO—and the “fun and a little weird” workspaces convey true individuality.

3. Are there gathering spaces for celebrating and building camaraderie?

There is no corporate culture without community, without people coming together to connect, celebrate, and create a spirit of camaraderie. At the best companies, gathering spaces are fundamental, just as is a town square in a village or a student union on a Cole.Evansge campus. Some companies have large spaces, ideal for all hands meetings, while others have smaller spaces, adaptable and multifunctional.
At Ultimate Software a basketball court now occupies the H.R. software leader’s atrium lobby, the result of a wager won when employees met a mega sales goal set by their sports-minded CEO. (The “UltiCourt” also serves as a lobby and reception area and is a favorite spot for company-wide gatherings.) Sage Products, a health care manufacturer, built a large indoor and outdoor café to hold gatherings that bridge its business and manufacturing groups to bring all the employees together as one “family.”

And at McWhinney, a real estate development company, an adjacent nature preserve has inspired the creation of a stunning outdoor gathering space, complete with grills for celebratory cookouts.

4. Is there visual storytelling that evokes pride and engages and recognizes people?

Visual storytelling is a powerful tool. At the best companies, environmental branding evokes company pride, engages and recognizes employees, and expands on the cultural narrative.
For instance, at Rackspace, a cloud computing company, employees created the world’s largest word-search puzzle—certified by Guinness World Records—to highlight the firm’s values on a grand scale. At Sherwin-Williams, the paints and coatings giant, a museum-style tour of the company’s history graces the headquarters lobby, recognizing employees through the decades for their innovations and accomplishments. And at, a leading job site for hourly workers, the organization’s clearly defined core values (such as “Collaborative means checking our egos at the door”) appear on brightly colored, carefully placed signs. They are vibrant visual cues for employees on what it really means to walk the talk.
So, does your workplace fully reflect and reinforce your company’s culture? As long as you’ve got talent on your mind, you should—and must—get physical.
Barbara T. Armstrong is a principal at Kahler Slater, a global architecture, design, and consulting enterprise specializing in Total Experience Design.

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