People Science Logo

People Science

Workplace Design Guiding Principles: People Make the Place

Once upon a time, there was an organization that needed a new place to work. They knew what they wanted: seats for ## people, productivity, image, and collaboration. On time and in budget. Time to hit the drawing board, right?


Your Workplace Should Make Your Organization Better

Yes, you know what you want. Trouble is, your basic list is pretty much what every other organization wants. That’s OK if we assume that workplace design is generic. But what if we can do better than a generic workplace?

Sure, there will be some underlying similarities. But what if estimates that 50-60% of the total cost of workspace occupancy is related to what happens in the building after it’s built (and not what it costs to build, lease, maintain, and run utilities in the building) are right? What if a workplace that uniquely reflects the culture, values, strategic priorities, and operational demands of the organization working in it...can make that organization better?

For any particular organization, the workplace is a significant investment, typically in the top 2 or 3 operating expenses (alongside people and technology). Achieving the best value for that investment is meaningful.

We Are Creatures of the Places We Inhabit

It’s true that people are much the same the world over, and from workplace to workplace. But we also know that habitat impacts us. At an ecological level, geography, weather, resources, and other characteristics of our surroundings impact how groups of people behave and evolve.

Likewise, our work environments impact how the organizations we create and participate in operate and develop. Like in broader human habitats, people are resilient and enterprising, and we can tolerate and overcome a lot. However, we are also susceptible to influence by our surroundings.

So, a workplace that uniquely reflects the culture, values, strategic priorities, and operational demands of the organization working in it now and in the future...can make that organization better.

What’s a Workplace Design Guiding Principle?

Before hitting the design drawing board, we'll help you clearly articulate your organization's unique workplace design guiding principles.

A guiding principle1 is "an idea that influences you very much when making a decision or considering a matter."

Well-crafted workplace design guiding principles are the core ideas that, when embodied in your physical work environment, will encourage people to work collectively, productively, and creatively toward your present and future goals.

Sample Workplace Design Guiding Principles

To give an idea of what it looks like to develop workplace design guiding principles, consider these examples from two Purposeful Facilities clients.

Collaboration is a common “want” for most organizations. But does every organization have exactly the same needs when it comes to collaboration, and the best spaces to support it? Hardly.

Company A: Collaboration Guiding Principles

Company A was preparing to renovate and expand a downtown campus (290,000 square feet) for long-term use as a national headquarters for its growing multi-company operations and 1,200-person employment forecast.

“Collaboration” was high on Company A’s wish list, but how did that wish translate into workplace design guiding principles, and people using the space to its fullest potential?

Our Consulting Process for Company A


  1. A leadership workshop developed 5 overarching workplace design guiding principles. Leaders linked Collaboration to 2 of the 5 principles.
  2. A cross-level, cross-functional team of workplace design champions endorsed these guiding principles with specific design implications.

Design Accountability:

  1. Both groups reviewed design concepts and drawings for response to the design implications, and provided feedback and refinements.

Story of Our Building:

  1. Both groups contributed to a “Story of Our Building” orientation book connecting all 5 workplace design guiding principles with images and captions of how those concepts had been brought to life in the workspace. A copy of this picture book was on the desk of every employee on move-in day.

Post-Occupancy Workplace Experimentation:

  1. Both groups planned specific ways to model using the new workplace to its fullest during the first month. Relevant to Collaboration, they committed to:
    • explore various collaboration spaces for a range of meetings and interactions in their work
    • encourage team members to host their meetings in a variety of collaborative spaces

Company A’s Workplace Design Guiding Principle for Collaboration

Layer 1—The team linked Collaboration to two overarching goals:

  • Strategically Focused. Support our strategic goals of national expansion, ease of doing business, and employees and internal processes.
  • Attentive to Our Corporate Culture. Develop a state-of-the-art, timeless business campus with space to meet, socialize, and collaborate, while ensuring the health, safety and well-being of our employees.

Layer 2—Within each goal, the team articulated important Collaboration concepts to drive design decisions:

  • Strategically Focused: Collaboratively Facilitate Employee InteractionsWe value collaboration among individuals and workgroups -- to help us collectively understand and meet our strategic business challenges. Our new headquarters must facilitate both formal meetings and informal exchanges at all levels and group sizes, ranging from a pair of colleagues having an impromptu conversation to fifty employees participating in a meeting or training session. Limitations of our current facility surface primarily for accommodating larger groups of employees.
  • We value technology as a key support to effective collaboration. Widespread and convenient access is critical to seamlessly integrate collaborative thinking into immediate work products. While our new HQ’s outer shell celebrates history, our inner technology must be state-of-the-art in those areas that provide fundamental support to the strategic focus of our business.
  • Attentive to Our Corporate Culture: Favor and Appropriately Locate Collaborative, Open SpaceWe want employees to enjoy having productive social exchanges with colleagues, and also focusing on and excelling at the individual contributions they make to our mission. Our design plan needs to carefully consider locations of quieter and more vibrant areas so employees can interact without disrupting others or concentrate without being distracted.

Layer 3—The team translated guiding principles on Collaboration into physical workspace design implications:

Strategically Focused: Collaboratively Facilitate Employee Interactions Implications for our Headquarters design…

  • Include a range of technologically “smart environments” supporting casual and planned teamwork, both within and across workgroups.
  • Provide several larger meeting rooms allowing 50-60 employees to come together around strategic issues and projects.

Attentive to Our Corporate Culture: Favor and Appropriately Locate Collaborative, Open Space Implications for our Headquarters design…

  • Create a purposeful zoning plan with smart adjacencies of compatible activities or environments, and separations between dissimilar or competing activities and environments.
  • Incorporate design signals reflecting the appropriate activity and noise level within each space.
  • Focus on openness to support teamwork and collaboration without overplaying interactive spaces at the expense of focused concentration.

Layer 4—The team included annotated images of how specific spaces fulfilled the guiding principles in the "Story of Our Building:"

Strategically Focused: Collaboratively Facilitate Employee Interactions Spaces impacted by this Guiding Principle in the completed design…

  • Conference Rooms
  • Huddle Rooms
  • Informal Collaboration Areas - Distributed on nearly every floor in both central and peripheral locations along natural circulation paths. These open environments support the impromptu collaboration that keeps us connected and productive, complementing the array of formal meeting areas available in our HQ. Wireless capabilities support working from anywhere on campus.
  • Project Room
  • Incident Management Center
  • Large Multipurpose Meeting Center
  • Learning & Education Center
  • Wellness Center
  • Cafeteria
  • Outdoor Patio
  • Break Areas
  • Elevators
  • Communicating Stairs

Attentive to Our Corporate Culture: Favor and Appropriately Locate Collaborative, Open Space Spaces impacted by this Guiding Principle in the completed design…(showing sample annotations)

  • Zoning Plan - Departments have been intentionally located with horizontal and vertical adjacencies, supporting efficient and collaborative operations.
  • Horizontal and Vertical Adjacencies
  • Work Neighborhoods
  • Informal Collaboration Areas
  • Cafe Areas - Centrally located on each floor, cafe areas conveniently support light snack and beverage prep, as well as visitor hospitality. Seating and placement supports interaction without being disruptive or distracting to work areas.

Company B: Collaboration Guiding Principles

Company B was preparing to renovate a 40,000 square foot space as headquarters housing 58 employees who supported about 120 employees in other offices and locations.

“Collaboration” was also high on Company B’s wish list. But Company B is obviously much smaller than Company A, and is also in a different industry, employing people who perform different work.

So how did Company B's Collaboration wish translate into workplace design guiding principles, and people using the space to its fullest potential?

Our Consulting Process for Company B


  1. A company-wide questionnaire elicited opinions about the current work environment and ideas to maximize the workplace investment.
  2. Several cross-level, cross-functional focus groups met to distill workspace design guiding principles and specify design criteria. One of the five high-level guiding principles the process identified was Team Collaboration, with 6 specific criteria

Design Accountability:

  1. The architects attended focus group meetings and the project team completed reviews of guiding principle accomplishments at each design milestone.

Workplace FAQs:

  1. A communication team generated FAQ responses on the company intranet for questions employees voiced during design and construction.

Purposeful Occupancy:

  1. The leadership and management team discussed opportunities to model using the new workplace to its fullest during the first month, focusing especially on informal collaborative and path-crossing areas.

Company B’s Workplace Design Guiding Principle for Collaboration

Layer 1—The team developed a core guiding principle focused on Team Collaboration, supported by 5 reasons Collaboration was critical for success:

  • Team Collaboration. “Collaboration and teamwork are central to our values and to our work. Our building should make it easy for us to find a variety of functional spaces to work together and our spaces should support productive teamwork.”The study identified lack of support for effective collaboration as one of the biggest complaints about Company B's prior work environment. The team detailed 5 specific collaboration problems compromising effectiveness in the current space. Yet team unity and building strong relationships were strongly held core values. Requests for improvements in the new office space covered needs ranging from accessibility of individual workspaces, to workgroup teaming spaces, to both small and large conference spaces, to large multi-function spaces for large meetings or training workshops. Requests also included capacity for impromptu discussions and meetings as well as formal, scheduled meeting spaces.

Layer 2—Within Team Collaboration, the team articulated six important concepts to drive design decisions:

  • Support Collaboration within Workgroups
  • Support Formal Collaboration (Meetings)
  • Promote Path-Crossing & Reduce Isolation
  • Support Impromptu Collaboration
  • Support Collaboration with Regional Offices & Distributed Teams
  • Plan for Effective Collaboration Tools

Layer 3—For each sub-concept within Team Collaboration, the team specified design implications. Examples include:

  • Open team work areas for groups with frequent, ongoing need for interaction
  • Consider the full range of meeting types when programming formal meeting spaces - project teams, cross-workgroup teams, meetings with external clients and partners
  • Include shared resource destinations that provide efficient resources plus opportunities to confer informally
  • Include areas promoting unscheduled meetings such as a spot for a couple of people to perch for a quick discussion near shared resource destinations and away from work neighborhoods
  • Support web-mediated communication technologies for meetings including remote locations

Layer 4—In the FAQ, a section shared the Team Collaboration workplace design guiding principles, detailing:

  • The input on collaboration barriers and limitations of the existing workspace.
  • Formal and informal spaces included in the new workspace design, and the variety of options for size and enclosure.
  • Technology capabilities supporting collaboration within the space and at a distance.
  • Design features supporting visibility, connections, and impromptu collaboration.

Before You Start Drawing, Define Who You're Becoming

Those are just a couple of examples for inspiration. With their workplace design guiding principles in hand, both companies worked with design professionals to create award-winning workplaces that truly expressed and enhanced their unique identities, values, and cultures.

Perhaps more importantly, now that they are 7-10 years in to their workplaces, both companies continue to thrive as their work environments fit their strategic and operational goals, and the actions and interactions necessary for success.


  1. Cambridge English Dictionary. (2020). Guiding Principle. Cambridge English Dictionary.
© Copyright Coetic 2014-2020. All rights reserved. Updated 2020-09-01.