HIDDEN CLUES

You can tell how happy employees are by looking at these subtle details of office design

Obsession
The Office
Obsession
The Office

One morning last week, I opened the office refrigerator and saw that a gallon of milk had spilled inside. It was 8:30am, and I was facing my first moral test of the day: Would I clean it up, or shut the door and slowly back away?

At my old job, I’m sad to say, I might have ignored the spill. The job paid good money, but it often left me feeling stressed and defeated. Cleaning up a mess I hadn’t made would have struck me as profoundly distasteful; a metaphor for my general feelings about the job.

By contrast, I feel a sense of ownership and pride over my new office. And so I was happy to clean up the milk at Quartz—a place where I feel productive, supported, and motivated to contribute to a collaborative workplace. Sappy, I know. But true.

That moment made me realize that the average office space holds a lot of subtle clues about employee happiness—but they are not always easy to evaluate during the interviewing process. And so I decided to ask occupational psychologists and behavioral design experts: What are the secret signs of employee satisfaction in the average office? Here are the small details to look out for during your next interview.

The reception area

First impressions are everything—and the reception area represents the physical “face” of the company.

“When you’re sitting and waiting for the hiring manager or interviewer, take note of whether people walking past talk to or acknowledge the receptionist,” says Liane Davey, an organizational psychologist and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done. If employees greet or casually chat with the receptionist, that’s evidence of a warm environment where all workers are treated as deserving of equal respect. (Make sure that you say a friendly hello to the receptionist too—the better to signal your own collegiality.)

If your hiring manager greets you with an offer of a beverage, Davey says, always say yes. If the manager gets you a drink instead of sending a receptionist or assistant to do it for them, that’s evidence that the office is less hierarchical.

While you’re waiting, take a look around the reception area for signs of the company’s investment in the community. Reception desks often have collection jars for charity or research funding on display; if you see one, ask how the campaign is going, and where the funds will be sent.

Keep an eye out for bulletin boards in lobby areas, too. Are there posts about upcoming social or charity events, or are the posts totally outdated? Are there photos of employees playing softball or doing community service work? Such signs indicate whether employees socialize outside of the office, and will further clue you in to any social causes the company supports.

The kitchen

If you have the opportunity to check out the communal kitchen, take it. Dirty dishes and clogged sinks are obvious evidence of employee laziness and disregard for common areas. The fridge culture, meanwhile, is more nuanced.

First take a gander at fridge signage: Does it orient, or instruct? It’s a good sign if there are helpful fridge labels like “Communal” or “Personal,” and sticky notes to orient employees about what food is up for grabs. But signs like “Don’t take other people’s food” or “Leah’s, don’t touch!” tell a different story. Such instructional notes suggest that, at some point in the past, employees repeatedly disrespected one another’s property. Moreover, they suggest that office rules have to be set rather than arising informally through communal employee motivation, says Dan Connolly, a senior associate at the behavioral design firm ideas42.

If you see a clean kitchen free from passive-aggressive signs, ask about who’s responsible for kitchen upkeep. An organic system in which employees share cleaning responsibilities is further evidence of employee engagement and sense of ownership, according to Connolly.

Clearly marked composting and recycling bins (separate for plastic, cans, paper) are another good sign. Connolly says that his own office offers communal tote bags that people can grab on their way to the market and boasts a composting worm bin. Such offbeat details will let you know that the company is not only serious about being eco-friendly, but also has a less traditional corporate culture. On the other hand, if the firm preaches green goals but lacks basic recycling bins, you’ll know they’re not really invested.

Workspaces and communal places

Once you’re in the main workspace, look out for signs that employees feel comfortable personalizing their areas. Be sure to scan desks and cubicles: Are there photos of family and friends? Flowers or plants? Special mugs or kids’ drawings?

“Desk or workplace personalization evidences a real sense of engagement, and also shows that people are encouraged to bring their whole selves to work, including their personality and feelings,” says Davey. Moreover, personalized desks suggest that employees enjoy being at work enough to want to decorate.

Personalization is also key in communal areas like cafes or breakout spaces. While “imposed fun” items like foosball and ping-pong tables are trendy, they’re not a reliable sign of employee satisfaction, according to Davey. Instead, see if communal spaces look sterile (i.e., anodyne wall art) or if they feature company-specific things like photos from Halloween parties and company anniversaries, awards, and books.

In breakout spaces and conference rooms, be sure to check the white boards. If they’re full of fresh ink and new ideas, you’ve got proof of an environment that values collaboration. The opposite may be true if it’s clear the boards haven’t been erased in months, says Connolly.

And while much has been said about the pros and cons of open-office layouts, less discussed is the importance of privacy rooms. As many offices shift toward fewer walls, more glass, and increased transparency, privacy can be hard to find. But everyone sometimes needs a place where they can think and work free from distraction, have conversations, and privately express emotions.

A company that provides specific rooms or areas to meet these needs likely embraces its employees as full, multi-dimensional people, says Davey. “It’s not healthy to pull humans apart, or seek ‘work people’ instead of ‘whole people,’” she adds.

Bathrooms

As you head out after your (hopefully killer) interview, you’ll probably hit up the bathroom. Take a look around: The loo is full of—shall we say—potent details.

Take note of signage here, too: Does the sign on the back of the stall remind you to flush the toilet or to avoid flushing paper towels? “A patronizing message about flushing the toilet says that, at some point, they needed to put up that sign—that it was not an isolated incident,” says Davey.

Also look for additional goodies in the washroom, such as nice hand soap or moisturizer. These touches make visitors feel welcome, and communicate a mutual respect for the shared workplace. If applicable, check for company-provided tampons—when companies provide this unfairly taxed necessity, they demonstrate their respect for women’s health.

Ultimately, the most important thing is to know what you are looking for in a company’s culture, values, and personnel. If you’re big into personal expression and community cohesiveness, then jeans, desktop bobble-heads, and photos from company parties may be a huge plus. If you’re inspired by traditional professionalism, then a polished décor may be more your style.

Whatever you prefer, be sure to treat your interview as an opportunity to glean as much information about your potential employer as possible—beyond what they tell you themselves. The devil is in the details.

Follow Leah on Twitter @LeahFessler. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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