The Science of Work Culture: Placemaking

This is my second post in a series on the cultural workplace, inspired by the new book, The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, by Ron Friedman. The first post, The Science of Work Culture: Freedom to Fail, can be found here.

Over the course of my career, I’ve endured my share of less than hospitable physical work environments:

  • An office filled with broken down, mismatched, scarred furniture that even the Salvation Army would have rejected, with extension cords running every which way that the facilities guy noted as hazardous, but did nothing to correct. 
  • An interior space devoid of natural light, illuminated only by buzzing fluorescents, where fresh cut flowers never thrived and were lifeless by the next day.
  • A without walls, open plan workspace populated by architect Hani Rashid’s designer pods (that are fortunately no longer in production). Sure, they were cool and mod looking, but they offered only the appearance of privacy, scrimmed as they were with fabric that resembled the perforated lining of men’s swimsuits. Plus, they had virtually no storage, were rickety and didn’t hold up well to normal use.
  • A public showroom of polished brass and gleaming mahogany hiding the dark, dank quarters for staff, where a tarp had been strung over our heads to catch plaster falling from the ceiling and raining down on our desks.
Knoll’s 21st century take on the office cubicle. Image credit: Asymptote Architecture, 

Knoll’s 21st century take on the office cubicle. Image credit: Asymptote Architecture, 

I never felt that I did my best work in these spaces, and when I was under deadline for big writing projects or assignments that required uninterrupted concentration, I chose to work from home. The crappy furniture, poor lighting, chilly temps, lack of privacy and heightened noise levels weren’t geared for knowledge workers, and communicated that organizational leaders didn’t really understand how physical environments can either enhance or impede productivity.

According to psychologist Ron Friedman in his recent book, The Best Place to Work, a myriad of studies have shown how office design can contribute to employee well being, innovation, teamwork and heightened performance. To optimize the physical workplace, the author recommends moving away from the “one-size-fits-all approach” and providing a variety of environments for people to perform at their best. 

Interestingly, in an earlier blog post, I noted that a 2002 study revealed a key trait of resilient organizations to be the range of workspaces offered accommodating different types of work and working styles, including the option to telecommute. Friedman likens this to a college campus, where there are numerous facility options for students to self-direct their learning, such as the classroom, library, cafeteria, gym, dorm room, etc.

Friedman aggregates the findings of several research studies and shares how to enhance what I’ll call placemaking in the workplace. Cultural organizations that prize creativity, productivity and community should consider incorporating the following into their office mix:

  • High ceilings, which, believe it or not, free the mind and help to foster original thinking.
  • Color, coordinated to support certain kinds of functions; for example, red for detail oriented work because it “causes us to become more alert and vigilant,” or blue and green for inventive thinking, because these colors “make us feel safe and improve our creative output.” (More information on the fascinating world of color theory can be found here.)
  • Real sunlight and a view of nature, because we humans feel refreshed, have lower blood pressure and are “happiest when we’re close to the outdoors.”
  • Live plants, fresh flowers, aquariums and even images of landscapes, because they make us feel “healthier and more energized.”
  • Spaces that can be personalized, which engender a “sense of ownership and belonging.”
  • Distinct private and communal spaces that support quiet, contemplative work and interactive collaboration and collegiality.

Last fall, the World Green Building Council issued a report connecting good office design and greener buildings with enhanced worker health and productivity. It identified six workplace characteristics that affect employee well being and performance: indoor air quality, thermal comfort, lighting and views of nature, noise and acoustics, interior layout, and active design. To help organizations assess workplace conditions as a prelude to changing them for the better, the Council offers a DIY survey guide that addresses physical, perceptual and financial metrics.

No money, you say, for a new office or a wholesale makeover of your current one? Good design doesn’t have to cost a lot. Aesthetics matter to the cultural worker, so form a small working committee representative of the full staff to explore what’s possible and practical. Here are some ideas:

  1. If your office doesn’t have windows or access to the outside, install energy saving, full spectrum daylight lightbulbs. Add some shade loving plants (and make sure someone volunteers to keep them watered). Paint some colorful accent walls. And hang some employee artwork and photos, including landscapes and nature scenes.
  2. If your office is a mash of cubicles, partition some private spaces with removable walls to create offices that staff can reserve for quiet work, and buy some noise-cancelling headphones. And let your staff decorate their workstations to enliven their surroundings.
  3. If you have lots of private offices, turn one of them or an extra conference room into a communal workspace with modular furniture that can be configured for different tasks.
  4. Add some shared amenities, like a good coffee maker, refrigerator, water cooler and comfy chairs to promote socializing and employee interaction.
  5. If your furniture is junky, buy some well designed and inexpensive items from discount retailers and then apply some ingenuity. (For inspiration, look at these Ikea hacks for home offices.)
Creating a private space from a removable partition wall. Image credit: Cherry Tree Design,

Creating a private space from a removable partition wall. Image credit: Cherry Tree Design,

And here’s another insight from a recent Harvard Business Review article by marketing professors Boyoun (Grace) Chae and Rui (Juliet) Zhu: Make an effort to be tidy because working in a mess undercuts your ability to persevere and perform well. 

Friedman reminds us that workplace design can be utilized as a marketing tool to reflect organizational vision. In other words, it can serve as a form of branding, what Cornell University professor emeritus Franklin Becker calls “organizational body language.” It’s important that the message conveyed is consistent – if you claim to be pioneering, but your office is full of beige cubicles, think again.

So what's the takeaway here? “Engaging employees is about creating an environment that positions people to do their best work,” writes Friedman. Which means placemaking is just as important as content making.  


Friedman, PhD, Ron. The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. Kindle file (part 1, chapter 2).