A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my office, listening to the cold November sleet on the roof. Through the miracle of modern-day technology, I was conducting a face-to-face interview with one of our client’s employees. This particular organization was in a state with a much more favorable climate in November. I started out by introducing myself: “Hi, I’m Sam, and I’m sitting in Indiana today!” She immediately said, “Yeah, I was wondering what that big scarf was about.” It was 75 degrees and sunny out there.
This particular client is known as an organization that spares no expense on their facilities. However, that doesn’t mean the people who work there don’t see areas for improvement. I asked this interviewee, “If you could change one thing about your current office space, what would it be, and why?”
My interviewee thought for a minute and then came back with: She knew they had a great workout facility with a world-class Crossfit gym, but they really have nowhere to conduct their yoga classes, so when their yoga instructor comes each day, she has to hold class outside—and on occasion it can get a bit chilly. Thus, the employee would like their new office to have an indoor yoga studio.
I’ll fully admit that, at that moment in time, sitting there in my big scarf, I had to dig down deep to be an empathetic and neutral qualitative researcher.
Over the years, we’ve heard some pretty fun responses to this question, including things like a cotton candy machine and a rooftop pool. And alternatively, we at times hear drastically more grounded and far less creative answers to this question. Sometimes people will say they wish they had Wi-Fi access or they really wish management would have the carpets cleaned once a decade.
No matter how fanciful or basic, we can learn a lot about an organization based on answers to this question. First, an employee who suggests a cotton candy machine is likely satisfied with how his or her basic needs are met—think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s not even possible to think of a cotton candy machine if you don’t have convenient bathrooms or a break room.
Second, while this cotton-candy-dreaming employee might care deeply about the work he or she is doing, that drive might not outweigh the expectations of comfort in the office—or it could be that the work the employee is doing is in such high demand that he or she can be choosy about comfort.
In our research, we’ve found what workplace amenities people are willing to do without is affected by a few factors, including the integrity or prestige of the work as well as the talent pool the organization is pulling from. If the talent pool has a lot of options, and the workplace isn’t particularly comfortable or doesn’t offer a lot of amenities, people have to be attracted by the integrity or prestige of the work. If the work itself isn’t viewed as prestigious and the competition for talent is high, a workplace that offers more amenities could be the deciding factor.
You can learn a lot about your organization by asking a few questions about what people might add to their space. If you get a lot of wild ideas, it’s probable that your baseline office space is comfortable and satisfying most needs. If the responses are pretty vanilla, it might be a warning sign that your space is not keeping pace with the times and hopefully your work is pretty compelling.
Here’s to hoping your staff is really wishing for a hot yoga studio!•
Julka is founder of Indianapolis-based DORIS Research, which uses design thinking to organize workspaces.