Monthly Archives: October 2018

Behavior By Design: Building Community

Posted on by

Anchored by a mammoth poured-in-place concrete desk, the lobby tells the Messer story to visitors and employees alike.

Behavior is not a linear equation

Space is a tool that can be used subtly and successfully to shift the behaviors of individuals, alter the cultures of organizations, and beneficially impact the bottom line. It’s trickle-up economics—the notion that organizational performance is the collective product of individual experiences. That said, people are complex creatures and design must consider a bewildering number of complicated variables. As a result, there is no linear equation for using space to steer behavior. Rather, real estate is but one of the dials leaders can turn to alter the workplace experience.

The theme of this series is to demonstrate the impact that space has on organizational behavior. In the first article, it was posited that the attitudes and actions of the workforce, set within the context of the built environment, provide a compelling source of design inspiration irrespective of external factors. In the second, we identified a number of circumstances that have shifted the way people work and altered the expectations of the workforce. In the third, there was further identification of the macroscopic forces that drive change in the workplace—from emerging technology, to labor markets, to new work processes and the demand for new types of environments. The fourth went deep, drawing on recent advances in behavioral economics, to understand the mechanisms by which people make decisions.

Elements of construction are on full display, which serve as both an education tool and a reminder of the work in the field.

In this, the fifth article, an actual example that demonstrates and reinforces how shifting organizational behavior undergirded the entirety of the design challenge is highlighted.

From drab to dynamic

Messer Construction Co. is an employee-owned commercial construction company that performs work in the communities it serves. Although the company has expanded over 80-plus years to include ten locations across the Midwest and Southeast, Messer calls Cincinnati, Ohio home. Until recently, the company’s corporate functions were housed in an outdated, drab, and somewhat byzantine building, north of the city. Having recently completed projects in the rapidly developing central business district, Messer took three patient years to locate the perfect site for a new facility on a highly visible edge of downtown Cincinnati. On the decision to build at this particular location, CEO and Chairman of the Board Tom Keckeis states, “This is a double down into the city. It’s more centrally located, it has great access and it’s the size we need for what we want to do.” What Messer wanted to do was leverage its deep history in the craft of construction, to make a bold statement about the future workplace.

At the heart, it’s about community

For Messer, the project begins and ends with the community. The building is prominently sited along the I-75 corridor, one of the nation’s vital north-south arteries. States Keckeis on the location of the new building, “This area is redeveloping. We want to be a part of it.” The “it” he is referring to is the rapid redevelopment of areas adjacent to the central business district in downtown Cincinnati. By placing the building in a highly visible location, on the doorstep of the city, Messer claimed a visible place alongside other leading organizations in the city. Said Bethany Smith, Vice President of Marketing and Corporate Communications, “This building– the way that it’s laid out and our 360-degree views of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky–really connects us to the community as a whole.”

Messer’s commitment to the neighborhood is both real and substantive. Since 1990, the company has invested more than $21 million into its local communities. The company has both a thriving economic inclusion program and a dedication to workforce diversity. It hires locally, and the design features an immersive lobby that tells the Messer story, using a variety of graphic elements. Upon entering the space, a new hire has an immediate understanding of the legacy of the company, its purpose, and its long-standing values. Sonya Walton, Director of Economic Inclusion for Messer, puts it well, “I think a part of our story and our heritage is who we are within the community. We are right in the heart of the community. We are a part of it, and so I think when you come here you see instantly that our company is a community inside this building. We are learning. We are growing with each other. Messer is the fabric of this community.”

Natural light permeates a space that is both simple and subtle, encouraging people to interact with each other.

Narrative details

The space also features a deeper story. In the center of the lobby sits a massive concrete desk, which was poured in place by the Messer craft force. It is one of the many design elements that explicitly, yet subtly, indicates what Messer does. “One of our goals was to make sure that the building itself spoke to as the work we do as contractors,” says Tim Steigerwald, President. “It’s really important because most of the people who work for Messer don’t work under this roof. They are out on job sites, building every day, and we value the building process. We call ourselves builders.” Every design element in the building is an opportunity to illustrate the construction process. As such, the design team made a conscious effort to use features in the space to underscore Messer’s mission. “There is a blend of industrial, concrete, and wood systems that showcase us as builders and not just construction managers,” says Aaron Foulk, Building Systems Executive.”

Behavioral change begets cultural transformation

Companies exist at points along their own evolutionary trajectories. Prior to building the new facility, Messer’s corporate functions were isolated from the city and from each other. Employees worked in small clusters and closed offices, connected by a meandering sequence of hallway passages. Few had access to natural light and almost all were sequestered within their respective job functions. The place lacked any real sense of atmosphere and most certainly did not exude the buzzing community that leadership envisioned. In outlining the goals for the new building, leadership underscored the importance of collaboration amongst disciplines, both within the facility and extending beyond to the field.


The new design features a variety of places for people to come together and collaborate at different scales. Will Johnson, Sales Support Executive, reflects on the change, “I think the culture is really reflected in the fact that we now have all of this space to collaborate. Before, in our old building, we were very siloed. So, now that we have this much space and we have these dedicated areas that are specifically for us to come and collaborate and interact with one another – I feel like it creates a better workflow for a lot of people,” says Johnson. Consider also that Messer’s workforce is not limited to this facility. Instead, the lion’s share of Messer’s workforce is out in the field, staffed on projects for months, even years at a time. Likewise, when tradesmen and contractors come into the home office, they have a completely different set of needs. As such, the headquarters operates as a sort of chapter house, with flexible environments for people to occupy over limited periods of time. Commenting on the relationship between the workers in the field and the support staff in the headquarters, Smith says, “Everybody wants to come here, and we have seen an increase in collaboration between the headquarters and the field as a result.”

Crafting an authentic experience

In the end, Messer succeeded in crafting an authentic workplace experience. The space goes beyond simply communicating who Messer is. It illustrates what Messer does. The response has been dramatic. The Messer team distributed a survey at key points along the project–six months before the move, three months before the move, and six months post-move. The workforce wholeheartedly agrees that the space is efficiently organized, supports collaboration, inspires creativity, and enhances Messer’s ability to deliver world-class services. Reflecting upon the old office space after six months in the new space, similar scores for the prior space plummeted. People simply had to experience the new environment to understand it.


Originally published in Work Design Magazine.

Behavior By Design: Two Schools Of Thought

Posted on by

People have evolved to read subtle cues in our environments. Funky art, ample light, access to nature, and museum-quality art indicate to clients that this is not your typical law firm.

“Buildings are easy – some steel, some concrete, some glass… but, then you add people…”  — Jim Donnelly, Principal Emeritus, BHDP


For the past two decades, organizations have embraced a community-oriented approach to workplace design. Conventional offices from the 1960s to the dawn of the Millennium placed a premium on the periphery of the building, while people labored their entire careers in the dark recesses of conditioned boxes for a sliver of light they could call their own. These architectural designs reinforced rigid, hierarchical cultures that were ill prepared for the pace of the future. In the 21st century, as market disruption toppled many industry titans, the demise of corporate America’s old business model was replaced with a demand for community, innovation, and speed. Today, workspaces reflect these ideals—open, unstructured, and airy, on the one hand, and dense, noisy, and distracting on the other. Open space or closed? Collaborative or private? Extroverted or Introverted? As Donnelly suggests, buildings are easy. People? Not so much.

Two schools of thought

If spaces truly shape or, at a minimum, reinforce human behavior, then it should be possible to design work environments to achieve a set of predetermined outcomes. To accomplish that goal, two schools of thinking have emerged in the design and delivery of the contemporary workplace: 1) tell them what they get, or 2) let them choose what they want. Both schools have embraced leadership engagement, employee input, and the application of change management practices to ease the population as it moves from the present tense into an unpredictable future.

With “tell them what they get,” the hope is to achieve alignment with the company. Design is delivered by edict where the end-users don’t participate. It is a remnant of the corporate world’s hierarchical past. The other option of “let them choose what they want” seeks engagement in pursuit of user insight and is indicative of the communal present. Here the design team embraces input but tends to resolve the problem of competing preference by creating “activity settings” in which to work. Exceptional design can emerge from both.

Human neuroscience and the way people behave is a product of millions of years of evolution in natural habitats.

There’s a problem though. The first school tends to be authoritarian and rigid. It gets what it expects and no more. The second is egalitarian, capricious, and susceptible to consensus rather than innovation. It seeks stasis in its own flawed way. Both schools of thought have developed in response to the problem at hand: designing places for people to work. There are those who work together and those who work solo, but the fact remains that both groups will reside under the same roof. This is the heart of the issue. Each employee comes with a set of preferences. Preferences set against a series of options determine choices. Choices made repeatedly result in a set of conditioned, predictable behaviors.


Behavioral economists suggest that people have two cognitive systems for selecting a preference. The first system is highly aware and rational. It is employed when uncertainty prevails and weighing the options seems like the wisest choice. Choosing which college to attend would use this method. System number two is what one might call the well-worn road, sticking with what is comfortable and familiar. This is used to decide routine actions like what to eat for breakfast. It is this system that determines most behavior.

Technology impacts behavior, which impacts design

With the rise of global commerce and mobile technology, the problem has become more complex. In the office of the past, one’s immediate surroundings dictated their environment and resulting behavior. Now, many employees interact with associates they’ll never meet. They’re also given glimpses of places they’ll never see in person. This influence by the external environment has shifted the nature of behavior insofar as it is a function of attitudes, actions, and experiences. Becoming aware of what else is out there instigates behavior that reflects this expanded awareness. In the last article many of these forces were explored, including shifts in communication patterns, labor markets, organizational structures, and delivery processes. This article turns inward and embraces people for what they are—emotional beings trying to rationalize choices that are often economically irrational.

Architects and economists

Architects and economists alike have tried their hands at predicting human behavior by using models under given sets of conditions. In the architectural sense, models are abstractions of physical conditions that assume away the imperfections and intolerances of practical consideration. The benefit of architectural models is that they allow for rapid exploration of options. The downfall is that models reduce the greatest variable—people—to immobile plastic figurines. Similarly, economic models underestimate the variability of their populations. People within economic models are set to operate in their best self-interest to maximize their own utility. If that term “utility” seems confusing, it is by design. It reduces the diversity of human preference to a generic, plastic figure.

Over the last forty years, however, a new school of economic thinking has emerged: behavioral economics. Lead by Daniel Kahneman and, more recently, Nobel prizewinner Richard Thaler, these industrial pioneers have embraced the irrational aspects of human decision-making. It seems people aren’t the predictable models of behavior one might think. It suggests that a third school of thought may fill in the cavernous gap between “tell them what they get,” and “give them what they want.”


Since the brain has both passive and active modes, spaces can communicate intent using a variety of suggestions – some more literal than others.

Homer Simpson and the path of least resistance

Behavioral economics takes people for what they are: human beings. Sometimes they are rational actors who consider the short- and long-term ramifications of each option available to them and then act accordingly. However, this is rare. Instead, people trust their instincts and experiences as they navigate the world. Human behaviors are often equated to being a function of people’s actions and attitudes. The reality is it’s more complicated than that. People also hold a certain set of expectations and rely on their own experiences to guide their decision-making. They do this to reduce the degree of uncertainty in their lives because it makes things easier and more predictable. Generally speaking, people like easy. Thaler and Sunstein characterize this sort of behavior by using Homer Simpson as the mascot for short-term gratification. In other words, the path of least resistance seems to become the popular choice.

Also, predictability is boring and not always ideal. Instead, many constantly seek out novel experiences to augment those immediately available. Reading books, watching movies, chatting with strangers, or surfing the Internet provide experiences that expand the set of options available. In the past, novelty came at a premium. But in today’s on-demand world, it’s basically free and much easier to access.

Design for people

Being collectively aware of what is possible elsewhere has put pressure on what is expected from the practicalities of the workplace. In the here and now, “predictable” and “novel” undeniably are at odds with one another. As people’s behavior becomes increasingly difficult to predict, designing for behavior becomes more challenging. Office workers are more aware of the options available to them and might act differently tomorrow as a result. It throws “design by edict” right out the window. It’s the responsibility of workplace designers to narrow the options to those that will sustain individuals and organizations alike, consistently and durably. Fortunately, there’s a third option of “suggest what they might do.” Don’t tell them what they want and don’t flood them with options. Instead, nudge them in a predetermined direction.

The first step to delivering on behavioral change is providing people with a wider range of options. The second step is suggesting how those options might meet different needs, and encouraging people to take advantage of them accordingly.

From the evolving discipline of behavioral economic thought, a litany of terms has emerged to describe the way that well-intentioned designers, planners, policy-makers, business people, and politicians might nudge human behavior in a particular direction. Sometimes, it’s called “choice architecture.” Other times, the practice is referred to as “libertarian paternalism.” Regardless, the premise is that designers can use subtle design cues to influence human behavior in a predetermined direction.

The new alternative

Within the context of workplace design, behavioral economics presents an alternative to the two prevailing modes of design: by decree in the first and by committee in the second. It acknowledges that people will behave in irrational ways that might be to the detriment of themselves, others, and the organization. In response, it takes people for the unpredictable human beings they are, and endeavors to limit the set of choices at hand to enable people to act in the interest of both themselves and the organization.


Originally published in Work Design Magazine.