Company Culture

Design Your Office to Fulfill Employees' Most Basic Needs

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In the war for talent, savvy companies understand that office space is both a key component of their recruiting strategy and a platform they can use to amplify their culture. One way to design a space that will become a competitive advantage is to understand exactly what it is that your employees need to be happy.

Related: Why Company Culture Is More Important Than Ever

And for help on that front, you might think about Abraham Maslow’s 1950s theory about human motivation and his hierarchy of needs.

How can something like office design aid in fulfilling those needs? Answering that question is key to helping companies design spaces their employees love. After all, the same principles that apply to people should also be considered when designing for people. Here are four to consider:

1. Think: "full stomach, full heart."

Though you’d be hard pressed nowadays to find an office that doesn’t meet humans’ most basic requirements for air, water and shelter, companies often miss the mark when it comes to providing food for their staffs. Some executives will argue that the cost of daily lunch outweighs the benefits. But beyond keeping your employees’ minds off their hunger pangs, feeding them shows that you are invested in their well-being. And that in turn will build powerful goodwill and create brand ambassadors.

Like families at dinner time, employees will gather in the office kitchen to connect, so the space should reflect that of a welcoming host. Minor additions like long picnic tables and comfortable couches will further enhance the theme and encourage employees to spend their break time in the space rather than outside. Firms with limited resources don’t have to go to extremes to provide for their employees (a la Google’s Chicago office's full floor-cafeteria and free food all day).

Even startups can take steps to keep their employees full, with moves like stocking their kitchen with fresh fruit or granola bars. A full employee is a happy employee -- and a happy employee is an investment worth making.

2. Succumb to peer pressure.

Though most organizations have figured out that perks and benefits are a key component of their competitive advantage, workspace design has been, until now, a rather overlooked part of this equation. But employee needs shouldn't be -- and the two often go hand in hand.

I recently spoke with Zappos' head of HR, who made an interesting analogy: If you walk by a packed bar with people laughing and having fun, you are more likely to wait in line and pay more for drinks there than at a quiet but nearly empty bar a few doors down -- even if the second bar has cheaper drinks.

Related: 6 Steps for Creating a Strong Company Culture

Building a successful workspace entails a similar principle. By creating a sense of community, you'll find your employees more likely to feel that inherent sense of belonging that gives organizations a competitive advantage. It’s no wonder that people in successful companies speak of their sense of "family." In fact, a genuine social network at the office is a real safeguard against turnover.

So, how can firms integrate this intangible concept of community into their workspace design? Open communal areas, family-style kitchens and café-esque spaces where people can come together to build relationships are worth the investment. In this light, a client of ours, Coyote Logistics, often recognized for its tight-knit company culture and emphasis on teamwork, boasts a company store within its headquarters. The branded t-shirts, pullovers and other apparel the store offers employees is a simple way to encourage that sense of belonging, even for larger firms with multiple locations.

And employees do buy in; more than half of Coyote's employees typically sport the team logo.

3. Build 'em up, Buttercup.

Though employees may not admit it, confidence and esteem are two of the most basic human needs, and employment is a key driver -- for better or worse. Confidence comes from autonomy within an environment, and autonomy comes from a culture that doesn't punish mistakes made in the name of progress. Esteem comes from recognition, both by management and peers.

Organizations should embrace technologies and processes that facilitate positive feedback. An example is the mini-survey platform TinyPulse, which allows employers to keep track of how their teams are feeling. When companies integrate actual measures of confidence and esteem, employees know that their opinions (and emotions) are valued, which in turn boosts both confidence and productivity.

At our client, Centro, each meeting is kicked off with a “check-in,” with the leader asking how each team member is feeling. This seemingly innocuous step not only shows employees that their leaders care about them, but helps to shed light on any unique personal circumstances that may impact participation. Spaces that minimize hierarchy can help here. A related tip is: Reduce the number of long and narrow conference room tables, to create a more collaborative environment and encourage inclusive conversation.

4. Focus on the pursuit of happiness.

At the top of Maslow’s pyramid is self-actualization, characterized by creativity, spontaneity and problem solving. The key here is to nurture the ideas that start out as fragile fragments of thought. Chicago agency Tris3ct has this art down to a science, ensuring that nearly all surfaces in its office facilitate work, whether those surfaces be magnetic, writeable walls; chalkboards; or even corkboard light fixtures and floors! This ensures that employees with "light bulb" moments are never more than a few feet away from a surface on which to give their fledgling ideas life.

Over the course of our lifetimes, we'll spend more time in the workplace than we will in our own homes. Understanding this time commitment is critical to creating an environment in which employees can thrive and connect.

By using an existing resource -- office space -- and designing it through the prism of basic human needs, companies will retain high-quality talent by providing a stage for employees to do their best work.

Related: The 10 Company Culture Metrics You Should Be Tracking Right Now