Let's be honest: There's a lot riding on your office design. Study after study in recent years shows how employees' productivity, satisfaction, and health are affected by their work environment. Then there are all the articles on design trends, what the cool kids are doing with their office spaces, and how they're retaining top talent by having the latest innovation in interior design.

Real estate is expensive. Many companies, particularly startups, don't have enormous budgets to build, renovate, or demolish everything and start over.

So how does a startup get the maximum in design for a minimum in spend?

Start From the Real Beginning: the Human Element

Your company isn't made up of desks, computers, a cafeteria, and meeting rooms. Your company is made up of people. If you want hardworking, talented, passionate people who believe in what they do, you have to listen to them about what they need. It's great and exciting to jump straight into the design phase of planning your office, but that plan, no matter how beautiful, will fall flat if it does not meet the needs of your people.

The design should also be aimed at showcasing your company culture without ever uttering a word. Clients who walk into the reception area should get a sense of your company values just from the atmosphere. If your company culture is ingrained in its design, it's a daily reminder for all who work with and for you why they've chosen you instead of your competitors.

So what's your company's story? Is it preserving the old to make it new, like the offices of Urban Outfitters, which renovated an old shipyard in Philadelphia? Is it using the inspiration of the outdoors, like L.L. Bean or Microsoft? Your office doesn't decide your culture; your culture decides your office. Start there and design on.

Stop Following Trends

It's one thing to be inspired by the latest and greatest in office design, but it's another to scoot like lemmings off the edge into the open-office pitfall if it doesn't serve your employees. Somewhere, there's a graveyard with all the office slides companies wasted trying to be like Google. But now, we're learning that open offices aren't the be all and end all in office design, and they can actually hurt your company. If you're getting caught up in what's trendy and not paying attention to what works for your people, you're cutting off your nose to spite your space.

When Steve Jobs redesigned Pixar back in the early 2000s, he understood the importance of collaboration but also understood that collaboration was hindered by the open, cubicle-based design of their previous HQ. Too much distraction and noise made inspiration, which Pixar thrives on, more difficult to capture. So the plans for the redesign included U-shaped "neighborhoods" with five to six offices, and the curve of the U held a central gathering area. The offices in each neighborhood were more private, giving employees what they needed. The best part, though, was the offices began as blank slates, and the employees were able to put their own stamp on them as they wished, making the design organic, free-flowing, and very much about the Pixar employees. One office front might boast a Western town, while its neighbor resemble an island paradise. The company culture was easily reflected because the people who were part of that culture did the designing.

All this at a time when open-office trends were taking off, toppling cubicle farms and setting employees up at cramped, crowded tables too close together and tanking productivity. Steve Jobs was definitely ahead of his time.

Don't Generalize Your Company's Workers

Saying your design is inspired by Millennials doesn't say much.

Millennials may be a single generation, but they're not homogenized in their work styles, job titles, or age. Some will work better choosing to sit in a big, airy space where a lot of foot traffic passes, and some will be more productive in a quiet corner out of the way. A department whose main focus is analyzing data will be happier in a place free from distractions, while your customer service or sales teams will likely thrive in an acoustically optimized place where they can openly speak on the phone, or have teleconference calls without worrying about disturbing nearby workers.

Designing by teams and how they work is important. So, give each group what they need, rather than lumping them all together. And don't just focus on the team that brings home the bacon. Your accounting department may not come up with the next big product to put your company on the map, but that doesn't mean they should get short shrift in their work environment.

Speaking of corners out of the way, don't save the prime real estate in the company for those executive offices that'll hog the great views and sunlight. Your employees benefit just as much from natural lighting and outdoor exposure as your C-suite does. Consider whether all the rungs on the ladder getting access to the design gems within the company does greater things for your bottom line than giving them to those on executive row.

Be Adaptable ... Especially on a Startup Budget

Chances are, your company doesn't have an unlimited budget for office design. This could make for some interesting choices in how to utilize space, particularly if you have gotten feedback from your employees that shows you need a multitude of spaces--quiet, acoustically dampened areas for focus, meeting and brainstorming areas where people need to talk freely, or somewhere in between, where those who like background noise but not distractions work best.

Customizable partitions, freestanding bookshelves, a wall of plants, and even modular workstations that move around can help your office space remain fluid and usable in almost any situation.

It's also wise to lead by example. Use wide-open spaces to hold company gatherings, and set the atmosphere you hope to foster within the space. If you have frequent presentations to reward employees for jobs well done, use these areas so they engender good feelings in the rest of your workforce. People will naturally gravitate to these areas between gatherings as a place to mingle because they've been given a positive atmosphere for everyone.

In the past 20 years, companies have realized they don't have to adhere to anyone else's idea of what their office should look like. Some amazing designs have come out of it, but some real hurdles to overcome have as well. By taking a thoughtful approach that considers a variety of work styles and keeps an open mind toward versatility, adaptability, and support for everyone, your startup can be the innovative one in terms of the office design of the future.

Published on: Mar 15, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.