Whether you’re the type of small business where redecorating your space means you, the owner,  take a trip to Ikea for a couple of desks or you’re more at the stage where you engage the best designer you can find to spiff things up, refreshing your workspaces is always a bit of a hassle. But what if you outsourced some of the work... to your employees.

That’s the approach Wisconsin-based tech company Widen Enterprises is taking. "With age our building has become ill-fitting and rough around the edges. Over the years people have been shoehorned into spaces designed for other purposes and the building has been stretched and monkey-patched to fulfill needs that didn’t exist when it was built," Dave Haworth, a software engineer with the company explained.

But instead of simply asking some outside design expert to do an office facelift, Widen engaged its employees, asking them to suggest design features and weigh in on overall the concept. What did the team members come up with?

  • Employees defined the overall layout of the floor specifying the use of an open environment with breakout rooms for meetings and a third space for creative interaction.
  • Employees decided on the naming convention and themes applied to the breakout rooms around Wisconsin cities and towns with the theme of each representing something in that location. “Spooner,” for instance, is the home of the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum so  has, naturally enough, a full-scale canoe lighting system on the ceiling. “Green Bay,” equally unsurprisingly, has a stadium feel.
  • Employees suggested an entryway that includes a lighted cabling display system to highlight employees and their areas of interest.

Besides suggesting that an open layout with spaces to get away and hometown pride might appeal to your employees, what other lessons does Widen’s experience offer for entrepreneurs? The process itself wasn’t just a study in employee design preferences, but also a culture-building exercise unto itself, according to Karla Angel, a project manager. "My favorite part of the employee suggested aspect of the office design is that I'll have a direct impact on my work environment. It's unique and we have a very open culture -- it's easy and comfortable to go talk to anyone you need to. The open layout reflects that culture and supports communication amongst teams," she commented.

The project at Widen also offers some insights for other business owners on what not to do if they’re contemplating something similar. "Having a lot of people weigh in on the material selection got a little tricky as there were some strong opposing views," reports Angel.

Breenna Hale, an adviser on the project, says the solution to this sort of time-consuming disagreement is to have a two-level decision-making process: "It is challenging to have a number of varying opinions involved in design making decisions. My advice to anyone contemplating a similar project would be to survey the company on basic themes, likes/dislikes for the project well in advance. Then work with a small group of employees (2-3) to make final design decisions."

"Be sure to solicit input from those who will actually be spending their time there, but have a person or smaller group who will make the final decisions and move things along," agrees Haworth, who insists that "overall, designing a new space should be a fun process."

If you asked your employees what they would like to change about their workspace, what would they say?