a colorful collage of people holding puzzle pieces

What Happens to the Workplace When the Workers Become the Bosses?

Employee-owned companies are a growing force in America. What lessons could they hold for workplace designers?


Photographer and crew, check. Photo shoot stand-ins for Facebook employees, check. Front-door key, check. I open the door and…what on earth? There are stripes on the floor of our pristine polished concrete entrance, making it look like a crosswalk. I run in and find desks moved around, and more paint: There’s graffiti everywhere. Well, stenciled graffiti. And…okay, it’s kind of cool. It turns out the employees had an event at the end of the week to “hack” their own space. As I contemplated whether to cancel the photo shoot or try to work around the “hacks,” I realized we had achieved our ultimate goal. 

Employees Know What Spaces Suit Them Best

When I started my firm Studio O+A in 1991, I had this ideal that a well-designed space could inspire better productivity, collaboration, and focused work—all things the design world now accepts as established doctrine. I also believed that employees know best what space is ideal for them. I had wanted to experiment with putting the power in the workers’ hands to create spaces that they really wanted. We asked, “How do we give the worker agency but still operate as the designer?” 

Facebook was our firm’s very first chance to explore this idea. The leadership wanted to include every employee at the organization in the design process and use the Facebook platform to do it. The organization was a lot smaller back then, and somehow it worked. Everyone had a voice, which I think ultimately led to the feeling of ownership that empowered the workers to personalize their own spaces. We went ahead with our photo shoot and documented the “design collaboration” that helped spur the company to incredible growth in the next decade. 

Fast-forward 14 years, and the question many designers today are asking is “How are we going to get everybody back to the office?” Designers think there’s got to be a design solution. But more phone booths, fuzzy bean bags, and meditation rooms are not going to do it. The conversations about the Great Resignation and quiet quitting were not about office design. Nearly half of Americans say they are unhappy with their jobs, and in a recent LinkedIn survey 70 percent of Gen-Z and millennial Americans said they planned to quit in 2023. There’s a general dissatisfaction with work and how empty it often leaves us, both financially and psychologically. The inequity that I’ve seen grow during my lifetime is a large part of the problem. 

a colorful collage of people working at computers

Workplaces Aren’t the Problem, Work Is

Maybe it’s not that workspaces are not working but that work itself is flawed. Maybe the real question should be “How do we make work better for more people?” I think some of that might come down to workers having more agency within their organizations. If workers were empowered to influence company policy on how work happens, perhaps they would be happier. But corporate structure is way outside the scope of any design project. Why should a designer care? 

A full decade before that 2009 Facebook project, one of my firm’s early clients was a company called Connor Formed Metals. It no longer exists, but it was an ESOP, a type of employee-owned company. I’d never heard of an ESOP before (the acronym stands for “employee stock ownership plan”), and I was intrigued. For a manufacturer of metal springs, they were particularly forward-thinking. They were interested in all the latest innovations for their workers, like white noise systems, microclimate zones, and natural and circadian rhythm lighting. They were also very flat, which was unusual in Silicon Valley in 1995. We didn’t design a single executive office for them because everyone worked in collaborative team areas. 

Today the person who led that project for the client, Michael Quarrey, works at another employee-owned company and is board president of a public policy and grassroots advocacy organization called Ownership America, which helps companies make the transition to being employee-owned. Companies like his might be interesting for workplace designers to look into during this time of change.

While there’s been a lot in the news lately about unions, employee ownership has been quietly gaining traction. Employee-owned companies represent 9 percent of the private sector in the U.S. today. (In our own industry, Gensler and HDR are employee-owned firms.) “Ownership” in these companies can take many forms, ranging from staff holding a majority share of stock in the company to workers being involved in governance of the company and having a say in major strategic decisions—like how their workplaces should be designed. 

“A study by Rutgers University and SSRS found that employee-owned companies were 3.2 times more likely to retain staff during the pandemic.”

Employee Ownership Is Gaining Traction

Thirteen states in this country have passed or are considering legislation for funding, tax incentives, and contracting qualification for employee-owned companies—with bipartisan support. Employee ownership is something that politicians on the left and the right can get behind because it is truly a win-win for everyone. It tackles inequality from an angle that we don’t often think of—it’s another way (besides homeownership) to build generational wealth because workers make money every time the company makes a profit. This can be very motivating to employees: Studies have found that ESOP companies grow about 2.5 percentage points per year faster in sales, employment, and productivity.

It is also more likely that even though profits are important, these companies will care more about the communities they are in and consider other factors that traditional corporate shareholders wouldn’t in their pursuit of profit above all else. Employee-owned companies are also more likely to think about how profits are affected in the long term, and therefore consider the sustainability of their businesses in relationship to the communities, supply chains, and ecosystems they are in. No wonder ESOPs are extremely successful at retaining employees. During the pandemic, while the rest of corporate America was worried about the Great Resignation, a study by Rutgers University and SSRS found that employee-owned companies were “3.2 times more likely to retain staff—even when other businesses received funding through the Paycheck Protection Program and the employee-owned firms did not.”

Ultimately, the health and happiness of the workers are a priority at these companies because the owners setting priorities are the workers themselves. This is a game changer. Who wouldn’t want to go to work at their own business? It’s the ultimate American dream. 

So what does this trend mean for workplace design? First, ESOP and other employee-owned companies have a track record of offering better benefits to their workers—employees at their companies typically have 2.5 percent more money in their retirement accounts than their counterparts in conventional organizations. If a well-designed workplace can be regarded as another company benefit, the greater involvement of employees in creating that design is likely to result in more supportive and healthier working conditions. That’s good for employees and designers alike.

Second, designers engaging with other types of clients can take a page out of the book of employee-owned organizations. It seems there’s something to learn from workplaces where people inherently thrive, have value, are connected, and feel secure. Rather than relying on design to woo workers back to the office, maybe we should be advocating for greater employee involvement in setting the terms of work. 

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