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Design a workplace that reinforces your culture

4 min read


This guest post is by Barbara T. Armstrong, a principal at Kahler Slater, a global architecture, design and consulting enterprise specializing in Total Experience Design. To request a copy of the white paper “Great Culture, Great Workplace,” e-mail her at barmstrong(at)

Attracting and retaining talent is at the top of the agenda for CEOs, according to the 2011 Annual Global CEO Survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Many companies are launching employer-branding campaigns — designed to make a company seem like a desirable place to work — for the first time in several years.

One critical component of corporate culture is a company’s workplace, the physical environment for its treasured talent.

At Kahler Slater, a global design enterprise, we set out to study the physical environments of the Best Companies to Work For: 150 organizations recognized by the Great Place to Work Institute. (Our own enterprise is proud to be among them, seven years running.)

Our research findings, from both surveys and site visits, reveal how Best Companies, through four common characteristics, reflect and reinforce their culture in their physical environments. What are those four characteristics?

External and internal brand alignment

The most successful brands are more than a set of products or services. They’re an “experience” — an emotional engagement between a company and its customers. At the Best Companies, such an experience is also expressed internally. For employees, the dots connect; the brand, internally and externally, is aligned.

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, down to employee nameplates made from recycled computer pieces. And at JM Family Enterprises, a top owner of Toyota dealerships, the corporate campus bows to Japanese culture, including Japanese gardens, architecture and artifacts.

A visible spirit of culture

Through countless choices, both big (office location) and small (interior signage), the spirit of a company’s culture is in plain sight. At the Best Companies, that spirit starts with first impressions and stays clear and consistent throughout the work environment.

For instance, at Genentech, the biotech giant’s headquarters is located on “DNA Way” — a nod to the company’s roots in genetic research — and outdoor banners put a human face, quite literally, on lives forever changed through the work of Genentech employees. At Dixon Schwabl, a full-service ad agency, the firm’s playful culture is on display, starting with 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 online retailer Zappos, the company’s open, non-hierarchical culture insists on cubicles for everyone — including the CEO.

Gathering spaces to celebrate and build camaraderie

There is no corporate culture without community. At the Best Companies, gathering spaces are fundamental, like a town square in a village or a student union on a college campus.

At Ultimate Software, for example, a basketball court now occupies the HR software leader’s atrium lobby, the result of a wager won by employees after meeting a mega sales goal set by their sports-minded CEO. At Sage Products, the health care manufacturer created a large-scale indoor and outdoor café to hold gatherings that bridge the business and manufacturing groups and bring all employees together. And at McWhinney, a real estate development company, an adjacent nature preserve was the inspiration for a stunning outdoor gathering space, complete with grills for celebratory cookouts.

Visual storytelling that evokes pride and engages and recognizes people

Visual storytelling is a powerful tool. At the Best Companies, such “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 spotlight 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 for their innovations and accomplishments through the decades. And at, a job site for hourly workers, the organization’s core values are clearly defined and appear on brightly colored, carefully placed signs — vibrant visual cues for employees on what it really means to walk the talk.