Get Your Walls Talking: Leveraging the Workplace to Tell Your Story

Barbara Armstrong
Principal, Workplace Experience Strategist
Kahler Slater

Walk into someone’s home and you can probably get a good feel for what they are like. They have made conscious choices in every room – from furniture, to paint colors to décor. Is it unorganized? Immaculate? Is the furniture of traditional or contemporary taste? Is the environment cold and sterile or warm and cozy? How we utilize the space we occupy is very telling. The same can be said of our workspaces. Your workspace conveys an image – to your clients and customers, and to anyone else who sets foot in the space – especially your employees. If you want to engage people and create an emotional connection, you have to make sure your workspace is conveying your unique story.

As architects, interior designers and graphic communications experts with a 104-year history of serving clients across the United States and the world, Kahler Slater leverages its broad perspective on the built environment to help organizations create ideal experiences for their employees, visitors, and customers. As an eight-time Best Company to Work for in America winner, designated by the Great Place to Work Institute, we understand the value of culture and the impact that engaging employees and building pride can have on both morale and the bottom line. Our team of workplace strategists and graphic designers work collaboratively with clients to identify the key stories that make an organization stand out – its culture, its history, and the vision and values that are unique to its DNA. Then we thoughtfully design these messages into the physical environment. This is often referred to as environmental branding.

Does Your Space Truly Reflect Your Company Culture?

If you walk into many offices, hotels, and conference centers, what do you often see? Stock art hanging on the walls. Predictable furniture. An attempt at comfort and warmth that falls short somehow.

Why? Why, in all of these places when we are trying to do business, make connections and engage people, are we not making specific and purposeful choices regarding the visuals of the space? If you want to engage people, fully engage them on a deep emotional level, they must be inspired. And what better way to start than with the space itself? It’s like a canvas begging to be adorned with color and line.

So how do you transform your workspace to tell your story?

Ask yourself: What is your company culture? What makes your people proud? What story and image do you want to convey throughout your space that sets you apart from your competition? What will inspire you and the people who share your space?

Think about the Sistine Chapel. From the moment you step inside, you can look up at the ceiling and know that every brush stroke had a purpose. Each wall helps set the tone and tell a story, chapter by chapter. Each one conveys a sense of history, a sense of value. While the Sistine Chapel may seem a grand example, it’s entirely possible for you to do the same in your workplace – putting your own company culture on display using the walls to tell your unique story.

Advantages of Artful Display

There are five distinct opportunities companies can take advantage of by telling their stories through the design of
their workplace.

1. You have the opportunity to authentically differentiate your organization.
Any company can buy attractive artwork for decorating your space, but that doesn’t differentiate you from the next organization. Your people are unique, so why isn’t your space? Choosing the right visuals helps you to tell the unique stories of your clients and employees. They extend the fingerprint of your organization and provide a palpable feeling of what makes you different. There is a clear place for art in the work-place, but it should complement the story you want to tell.

2. You have the opportunity to set expectations about your culture.
Your visual storytelling enables you to express aspects about your organizational culture without saying a word. The right visual reflects your values. It shows people how you can help them and where they may fit into your organization. People are able to look at your space and get a feel for what happens there. You are literally putting your culture on display – so make sure it’s sending the message you want.

3. You have the opportunity to reinforce your brand alignment.
Your visuals announce that your brand in the marketplace aligns with your brand in your office space. It shows cohesiveness and purpose. People can understand this brand alignment and feel the connection between who you say you are and what they see in the environment.

4. You have the opportunity to set the stage for how you tell your story to visitors.
You can use your environmental graphics to set the proper guidelines in place so the right story is consistently told. The cues and touchpoints you set up to tell the story are like signs
in the woods, allowing you to express the particular points about your organization that you want people to know.

5. You have the opportunity to help build pride among employees.
Your space plays a crucial role in engaging people. Visuals offer a special form of communication that helps employees feel proud of the accomplishments, the values, the products or services and the goals of the company. It all becomes part of a bigger story regarding who “my” company is and the pride “I” take in it. It focuses on building emotional connections and leveraging them to better the workplace.

A Wall of Values

Many companies put visual representations of their company values on the walls of their office space. You might see words like, “Integrity,” “Commitment,” or “Teamwork.” One of the greatest advantages of displaying your values this way is that they become an integral part of your surroundings and a measure of accountability. They are constantly present, infiltrating every part of your day. You are essentially showing your cards to anyone who walks in the door – clients, prospects, employees, and prospective employees. You are saying, “this is what we’re about and we expect the same of anyone who walks through our doors.” Companies who put their values out in the open for all to see are describing expected behaviors in their space and must be living them day to day in order to remain authentic and credible.

We have had the privilege to study many other Best Company organizations and saw various ways they use graphics to reinforce values. For example, SnagAJob, America’s largest hourly employment network for job seekers and employers, displayed the following: “Collaboration means leaving your ego at the door.” It sends a clear and concise message. If you walk into an interview and see those words, you already understand what the company stands for and you have been given direction regarding your expected behavior. And, it has worked well for them − they were the #1 Best Small Company in America in 2011!

Visual Storytelling in Practice

A great example of this theory in practice is Mesirow Financial. This diversified financial services firm wanted to tell its stories in its new Chicago headquarters. After many sessions with their executives, we understood Mesirow’s story, their people, culture and desire to present their brand in a certain way. Together, we developed an environmental storytelling program utilizing several locations and a variety of mediums.

  • The main reception area – an accordion wall showing a panoramic view of the Chicago skyline in one direction and a dramatic map of the world in the other direction. The story: Mesirow Financial is a Chicago-based organization with a global reach.
  • The primary corridors – special tributes to employees and clients by executives created in dimensional stainless-steel typography. The story: Mesirow Financial deeply values its employees and clients.
  • The conference rooms – honoring world-class thinkers with deep Chicago roots – architect Mies van der Rohe, physicist Enrico Fermi, and social philosopher and activist Jane Addams. The story: Mesirow Financial prizes leader-ship and innovation and a significant Chicago heritage.
  • The conference center lounge – a large history mosaic created with movable, multicolored glass tiles symbolizing the company’s milestones. The story: Mesirow Financial celebrates its rich history and accomplishments.

Authentically Differentiating Visually

While it’s not an easy task, authentically differentiating your company in the marketplace is synonymous with building pride within your organization. It gives employees, clients, vendors, and everyone else who comes into contact with your space a true feeling of who you are and what you believe in. It conveys your value proposition in a tangible and universally understandable way.

Consider visual storytelling and its ability to enhance your connection with both your employees and your visitors: What does your space say about you and your organization? Are you the author or have you left the message to chance? Paying attention to this important layer in your visual environment can reap rewards. By enhancing your workspace with environmental branding, you can tell your story, instill pride, stimulate engaged and innovative employees, and leverage your environment to play a stronger supporting role in achieving your business goals.

Barbara has nearly three decades of experience in strategic facility planning and design of the built environment. She serves as the leader of Kahler Slater’s Culture Communications and Strategy team, where she leverages her passion for integrating workplace design and culture into a competitive talent strategy for clients across the nation. Barbara is a regular contributing writer on Forbes.com’s Leadership Forum, focusing on how design impacts business. To reach Barbara directly, email her at: btarmstrong@kahlerslater.com.

For eight years running, Kahler Slater has been named one of the “25 Best Small Companies to Work for in America” by the Great Place to Work Institute. More information is available at www.kahlerslater.com.