Merriam-Webster defines delight as a high-degree of gratification or pleasure. Rooted in the Latin word “delectare,” meaning to charm, delight connotes feelings of lightness, joy, and amusement.
Delight is surprise, but only the good kind. It happens when expectations are exceeded, when service goes “above and beyond,” when needs are anticipated and catered to even before they are expressed.
In Customer Experience (CX) design, delight is a tried-and-true way to increase customer satisfaction and loyalty. Delighted customers spend more, are more likely to share their positive experience with others, and are less likely to switch to a competitor. Like Customer Experience, Employee Experience is a buzzy topic. The workplace conversation is saturated with ideas about satisfaction and engagement, but the notion of employee delight receives less attention.
We ask: What effect could CX tactics, applied to workplace design, have on employees and their experience at work?
When is the last time you experienced an unexpected moment of joy? How about at work? Facing unprecedented levels of stress, burnout, and a so-called global permacrisis, more delight in 2023 is a goal we can really get behind. In December, our team circulated a short survey to find out what people are thinking and feeling at the start of the New Year. We received hundreds of responses, many of which expressed anxiety, fatigue, and uncertainty about the future. According to a recent poll, more Americans reported poor mental health and anxiety at the start of 2023, compared to a year ago.
With all this in mind, we turned to delight: What is it, why does it matter, and how might we create more of it in the workplace?
In his book The Shape of Design, brand and product designer Frank Chimero points to signage as a potential tool of delight. He describes the lobby of New York City’s Ace Hotel, where the code-mandated exit signs are livened up with a pithy existential reminder: Every Exit Is An Entrance to Somewhere Else.
Meeting-room names don’t have to be boring. Choose a theme (throwback movies, guilty pleasures, local landmarks, etc.) and take up a vote on room names that reflect your office’s culture and comedic taste. Unexpected or playful signage can be a simple way to boost morale and set a light-hearted tone.
The peak-end rule is a well-researched phenomenon in cognitive psychology. It refers to the finding that our reflective judgements are shaped by how we felt at the peak of an experience and at its conclusion. Daniel Kahneman describes this phenomenon in his captivating TED Talk.
First, identify and address negative “peaks” in the employee experience—research shows that people remember negative experiences more than positive ones. Then, invest in finite but memorable moments that matter to your employees. But don’t just throw in ping-pong tables and call it a day; delightful moments are byproducts of empathy, rooted in a real understanding of what employees need and want.
The market research company Ipsos identifies six “forces of CX” linked to emotional attachment and relationship strength between customers and organizations. Ipsos uses this framework to improve the customer journey. What if we applied these dimensions to the employee experience?
Design for enjoyment, belonging, certainty, fair treatment, control, and status. Benching workstations, for example, might encourage teamwork and contribute to a sense of belonging. Unexpected amenities or perks would employees really enjoy having in the office? Could pin-up walls dedicated to team “wins” help employees feel that their work is recognized and appreciated?
The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath explores the nature of memory, human experience, and why some moments matter more than others.
In this 15-minute podcast episode of NPR’s Life Kit, Christina Cala interviews the poet Ross Gay about finding joy in everyday experiences.
Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center suggests taking a 20 minute solo walk outside every day, pausing to notice and appreciate sights, sounds, smells, and sensations that you experience.
In academic literature, workplace fun is defined as playful activities that are amusing, pleasurable, or enjoyable. These activities can be social, interpersonal, recreational, or task-based, but they all share a common thread: play.
Workplace fun benefits employees’ health and well-being, increases engagement, promotes collaboration, and fosters creativity, according to the Harvard Business Review.
The office is making a comeback.
According to a survey of 1,000 business leaders, 9 in 10 companies will require employees to return to the office in 2023. Employers are eager to fill empty desks, but worry that forcing workers back could hurt morale, diminish productivity, and drive away talent. Many are offering incentives like catered meals, commuter benefits, and pay increases to lure employees back.
Could playful design make the office more appealing?
The benefits of working together—in person—are significant and well-documented. And through our experience as workplace designers, we’ve seen that the right kind of environment can help employees thrive. This is why we’re interested in finding ways to attract people to the office and help them get the most out of their time while they are there.
Enter: play. Humans are innately drawn to it. And science tells us that engaging in play, whether solitary or social, has a range of positive effects on mental and physical wellbeing.
Play is widely recognized as a driving force of innovation. This is why the office-as-playground trend, marked by indoor slides and bouncy-ball seats, caught on with companies like Google and Facebook in the early 2000s.
But a playful office doesn’t have to look like a playground. In our projects we apply, test, and fine-tune subtler strategies to set a lighthearted tone and encourage playful engagement.
Our design team used play-based strategies for the flagship office of TD Securities in Manhattan. Multisensory elements, from textures and pops of color to cutting-edge tools and amenities, enliven the space and encourage engagement. The office features diverse space types and furnishings to invite playful engagement, promote collaboration, and support the company’s culture of innovation.
Fun for one isn’t (necessarily) fun for all. Rene Proyer, professor of psychology and play researcher, identifies four dimensions of playfulness: Other-directed, Lighthearted, Intellectual, and Whimsical. Other-directed play is social in nature, while Lighthearted play refers to “seeing life as a game.” Intellectual play involves a mental challenge. Quirky or off-the-wall humor points to whimsical play.
Use the four dimensions of playfulness to inspire different kinds of play in the office. For example, a game room might invite other-directed and light-hearted play, while a display of quirky memorabilia or tongue-in-cheek signage might encourage whimsical play.
Catherine Price, science journalist and author of The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again, makes a distinction between “fake fun” and “true fun.” True fun, she says, happens at the intersection of playfulness, connection, and flow. Fake fun, on the other hand, uses up leisure time but is generally passive and unfulfilling.
In the office, carve out spaces for activities that blend playfulness, connection, and flow. Playing can happen alone, but more often than not there is an important social component. Prioritize playful, low-stakes activities that bring people together and are just challenging enough to excite and engage.
Organized play can feel hollow and burdensome when employees are overworked, when team bonds are lacking, or when a culture of learning and growth is not supported from the top. It’s essential to let employees call the shots when it comes to office fun, especially when it encroaches on their work or leisure time.
The best kind of play is intrinsically motivated. To encourage play without driving people up the wall, make sure employees know they can opt out if they choose. Recruit team members to come up with activities that embody their own idea of fun, and provide resources (including time!) to plan and implement them.
It Pays to PLAY: How Play Improves Business Culture Kristi Herold,
founder and CEO of JAM, shares practical tips to improve work culture, boost engagement, and spark innovation through play.
“Hey adults, fun is one antidote to stress. Try it more.” In NPR’s TED Radio Hour, Science journalist Catherine Price talks about the importance of true fun and how to make space for it.
Cultivate a “play mindset.” A playful mindset puts us in a better position to take on challenges and learn from mistakes.
If you’re someone with a stake in commercial real estate, you might have noticed the hype around office amenities ramping up lately. The internet is bursting with “must-have perks” to increase property value and win the amenity arms race. But in the battle to lure tenants with luxury, are we losing focus on how to build a better workplace?
Three years after the pandemic turned lively properties into zombie buildings, a good deal of office space remains vacant or underutilized. And it might get worse before it gets better; with more than 74 million square feet of leased office and mixed-use collateral set to expire in 2024, tenants will surely seize the opportunity to claim higher-quality space on more favorable terms. More than half of companies plan to reduce office space by 30% over the next three years.
There’s no doubt that top-tier buildings in prime locations have an edge over their lesser-quality and not-as-ideally-located counterparts. But even Class A properties aren’t immune to seismic shifts in where and how work gets done.
Upscale amenities—the more extravagant, the better—might look like the golden ticket to full occupancy and premium rents. But the noise around luxury seems to be drowning out more important conversations about the role of the office and how it can meet the very different needs of a post-COVID workforce.
The word amenity comes from a Latin root meaning “pleasantness” or “delightfulness.” As something that provides comfort, convenience, or enjoyment, amenities have been around for millennia. Ancient Roman cities had public toilets and bath houses. Medieval towns had horse stables and village greens for public events.
Over the past few decades, amenities have taken on a new life and meaning. Since the advent of the modern office, they’ve gone from metal trash cans (to prevent fires from discarded cigarettes) and air conditioning (introduced in the 1920s) to beehives and pickleball courts.
Yes, amenities are important. Office buildings with diverse and desirable offerings will probably fare better in a crowded market. But we think a well-considered workplace, one that is precisely tailored to the routines, needs, and preferences of the people who use it—while still being flexible enough to withstand change—will be the star attraction for post-COVID office buildings.
The Power of 10+ is a planning concept used by the Project for Public Spaces to breathe life into urban settings. It hinges on the idea that successful public spaces need to have a “critical mass” of compelling activities and features to draw people in and hold their attention. In other words, “it’s not enough to have a single use dominate a particular place.”
In an urban planning context, this might look like a public park surrounded by food vendors, a fountain, a dog park, shady seating, a playground, and other active features. Applied to workplace design, this might look like an office that provides a range of interesting and useful reasons for employees to be there.
The resimercial trend blends residential and commercial design to carve out home-like spaces in the office. Sofas, armchairs, ambient lighting, flexible spaces, and cozy accessories like lamps, ottomans, area rugs, and houseplants might come into play. But the idea runs deeper than décor and furnishings; it’s really about using design to give people a sense of safety, comfort, and belonging.
In our own research, we’re exploring the benefit of home-like qualities in work settings. Anecdotally, employees with a “home court advantage” are more creative, productive, and happy at work. Even simple interventions like adjustable task lighting and reconfigurable furnishings, or encouraging employees to personalize their desks with family photos or mementos, could have a positive effect.
Now that hybrid is here to stay, the office has an even higher bar to clear. Many workers have a decent home setup, so why should they spend an hour in the car just to sit at a different desk? A workplace that increases productivity and makes it easier to connect with coworkers provides value that home offices can’t easily match.
When it comes to workplace design, identifying day-to-day friction points and focusing on interventions to streamline work processes, address sources of irritation, or provide small, unexpected moments of delight can go a long way towards improving the overall employee experience.
The next stage of getting workers back at their desks includes incentives and consequences, according to The New York Times.
Productivity consultant Joe O’Connor discusses strategies to optimize time as a limited resource in the “Happier at Work” podcast.
Neuroeconomist Paul Zak recommends taking “quick breaks to refresh the brain” like walking, meditating, or even pausing to look out the window, according to Bloomberg.