You Are Where You Work: Your Brand + The Built Environment

By Melissa Steach, PhD(c)

Space and identity are interesting bedfellows. So intertwined are they that we perhaps never fully comprehend how who we are, and who we aspire to become, is informed by the spaces we inhabit.

Imagine yourself in your childhood home. Look around at the colors and shapes, notice the furniture: Is the sofa plush and soft, covered in a fabric that is warm to the touch and soothing to the senses, inviting you to visit and dream a little? Or perhaps the sofa is stiff with an air of formality, cold to the touch with a sense of purpose as if to remind you that you’re not meant to linger, that there are pressing matters to tend? What about the architecture? Are the doors tall and broad, so when left open air and sound carry freely from room to room; or are the doors narrowly tight, creating intimate spaces meant to be treated separately, even secretly, for singular purposes most of which never mingle?

Now consider the environment you inhabit most often as an adult: The workplace. What does yours look and feel like? Does it reflect the person you are today, your values, your goals? Expand your purview to your company. Does its design inspire you, your team, your clients?

As Americans, we spend an average of 87% of our time indoors. If you live in a heavy commuting city, add another 6% to that¹. Given these stats, aside from the people with whom you share this indoor time — the built environment is perhaps the second most significant relationship in which you engage — and it’s probably the one least considered.

When asked by the Pope to travel to Rome and “meet” God, Genghis Khan is said to have laughed quizzically asking, how could God be contained in a built structure when God is the sky above and the earth below²? The ancient Mongolians were people of the Steppe who survived by moving with the seasons, following animal migrations, and rotating crops. Likewise, their very homes (Yurts) were designed to be lightweight and mobile. The built environment they created not only supported their needs, it expressed their values and philosophy on life.

Ask yourself, what kind of people are you?

By employing workplace design to support your company’s needs, express your values and share your philosophy — you own the environment. Creating a look, a feel, an experience through architecture and design sets the tone for the culture residing within. Personality and organizational fit (PO FIT) addresses how successfully an individual “fits” with the organization. Depending on the fit, the individual will leave or stay³. Furthermore, mindful settings outfitted with work tools created to support people ergonomically increase productivity to the tune of $17.50 in ROI for every one dollar spent up front⁴.

Ask yourself, what kind of people do you want to attract?

You have only one chance to make a first impression. This is particularly important to remember when competing for talent. Gallup reported that most decide whether they will take a job based on what the company’s lobby looks like⁴. That’s before they even have the interview! Sight being our most often used sense, if the design of your company’s workplace does not align with the values you profess, a candidate will subconsciously experience cognitive dissonance at best or consciously think you’re full of it at worst. Either way, they’ll go in search of a company whose visual brand reflects its value proposition — which today is considered an extension of an individual’s personal brand and vice versa.

Ask yourself, what kind of people do you aspire to be? 
Public spaces are a beautiful tool. Be they in grand lobbies open to all or private plazas shared by people within an organization, the scale and scope of an open space can create the social equivalent of a group hug. Smaller settings within these larger open spaces can be arranged to accommodate a variety of activities. Just like a well-designed park, a workplace plaza can welcome a diversity of people to engage in a multitude of ways — all within sightline and earshot of one another. From the most collaborative culture to the most high-security, top-secret one — eye contact is a powerful glue. People are 50 percent more likely to stay at their job if they have a friend there and are more likely to like the people they see most often⁵. Social familiarity lends itself to inclusive behaviors, increased collaboration which in turn promote innovation. Inclusiveness does the spirit, and the arguably the company culture, good.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” goes the Peter Drucker quote. Consider that the “personality” of any organization typically mirrors the personality of its founder(s). Now return to the exercise above. Think on your personal growth and goals — ask yourself if they are reflected in your company — then ask if your biggest branding and production tool, the workplace built environment, effectively supports those growth and goals. The Mongol Empire spanned almost 200 years — why shouldn’t yours?

Melissa Steach, PhD(c), CEAS I — Human Factors and Ergonomics Specialist, Herman Miller, Inc. — Melissa is an I-O Psychologist, Emison Art Fellowship Recipient, and Amazon Bestselling Author. Learn more about The Living Office and connect via LinkedIn


¹ Gallup, State of the American Workplace (2017)

² Weatherford, J. M. (2012). Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world. New York: Three Rivers Press.

³ Biswas, S., & Bhatnagar, J. (2013). Mediator analysis of employee engagement: role of perceived organizational support, PO fit, organizational commitment and job satisfaction. Vikalpa, 38(1), 27–40.

⁴ Robertson, M. M., Huang, Y. H., O’Neill, M. J., & Schleifer, L. M. (2008). Flexible workspace design and ergonomics training: Impacts on the psychosocial work environment, musculoskeletal health, and work effectiveness among knowledge workers. Applied ergonomics, 39(4), 482–494.

⁵ Gallup, State of the American Workplace (2017)

⁶ Herman Miller, Inc. Human Factors in Workplace Design: Designing Spaces That Are More Naturally Human

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