8 Office Design Ideas for Better Employee Morale & Retention


Unemployment is close to a 50-year low, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s a great time to be in the job market, all things considered.

What’s great for workers isn’t always great for employers desperately seeking to fill open positions, of course. Record-high labor force participation is a serious problem for companies that depend on skilled workers, especially in knowledge-driven industries like healthcare and high-tech manufacturing. The most capable workers already have jobs, and they don’t tend to stay on the market very long after a layoff or voluntary separation.

Most employers recognize the threat posed by low unemployment. They’re working overtime to attract talented young workers with attractive pay and benefits packages, signing bonuses, and fringe benefits the likes of which haven’t been seen since the last economic boom.

Attraction alone may not be enough to replenish the ranks, though. Retention is more important for many employers, particularly those in industries affected by the growing “skills gap” — the shortage of workers with specific skills sought by specialized employers. In these businesses, employers are pulling out the stops to cultivate engaging, fulfilling work environments that keep talent in-house.

By itself, cutting-edge office design won’t turbocharge your retention efforts. But a wholesale revamp of your dated headquarters could make a difference on the margins. Here’s how to set your workplace apart from your competitors’ and get your employees excited about coming to work every day.

  • Brighten Up the Bullpen

Literally and figuratively.

Literally: by repainting in lighter tones, adding window capacity (if practical), removing heavy curtains, and increasing interior wattage to keep things light on gray days.

Figuratively: with seasonal decorations, wall art, and employee-generated content on whiteboards. 

  • Invest in an Art Installation (With a Purpose)

Add a centerpiece (or two, or more) to your lobby or exterior and support local artisans by commissioning corporate art that reflects your company’s mission and values. Majestic Steel USA president and CEO Todd Leebow has been lauded in the press (and earned high marks from Majestic employees) for his company’s commitment to northeast Ohio’s vibrant sculptor community; Majestic Steel’s redesigned headquarters features multiple works hewn from high-quality American steel.

  • Weed Your Cubicle Farm

A few cubes are fine. A bullpen’s worth? No way. Replace fixed, three-walled workstations with communal workbenches, four-top tables, and wallside personal workstations. It’s more than an open concept — it’s a release from the conventional.

  • Add a Bar (Not Literally)

Yes, many workplaces do have beer on tap these days. But that’s not what we’re talking about here — and, depending on the broader culture of your workplace, you should think very carefully before sanctioning daily office happy hours. Instead, add a long high-top at the mouth of your office’s open breakroom or kitchen to create a social workspace distinct from the all-business huddle rooms and workbenches elsewhere in your suite.

  • Keep the Fridge and Pantry Stocked

This is less of a design choice than a nod to human necessity. Not everyone eats three square meals during the week; encouraging shorter, more frequent food breaks may be a boon for your organization’s productivity, anyway.

  • Ditch the Water Cooler for Something More Practical

Consider one of those fancy touch-screen soda machines, perhaps, or a fridge with a vast array of healthy beverages. This one simple move retains the social aspect of midday breaks in a vastly more interesting package.

  • Add Homey Touches

Who doesn’t love a good houseplant? In an airy, light-filled open office with high ceilings, the possibilities are even greater: ornamental trees, bonsai beds, even terraria stocked with tropical plants. Invest in greenery and watch your employees’ moods blossom. 

  • Join the Standing Desk Revolution

At the very least, give your employees the option to work at standing desks. In a fully communal workspace with few dedicated offices, adding enough standing desk capacity to meet demand should be a straightforward prospect.

  • Innovate, Before Your Competitors Do

You know you’re in an innovation race with your competitors. What you might not realize is that this race extends far beyond your company’s core operations — to erstwhile afterthoughts like office design and fringe benefits.

They’re afterthoughts no more, in this labor market at least. A lackadaisical approach to office design could affect your efforts to attract and retain the talented employees you need to maintain your strong market position (or gain a strong market position, if you’re working from behind). 

Don’t wait for a competitor to make the first move. Your destiny is in your own hands, if you don’t wait too long to realize it.