Communicating without words: subliminal messaging by design

What does the workplace tell us subliminally about how valued and included employees feel? Dr Sally Augustin takes a look at the academic research

Workplace design says a lot about how employers value their employees. Office workers are constantly deciphering the messages that their employers send to them, whether consciously or unconsciously, via the design choices they make about their workplaces. Those decoded nonverbal messages can have powerful effects on how people in workplaces think and behave.

Research finds that mute signals sent by design are as important as the words that we speak out loud to each other. A new study by Dorfman and colleagues finds that even deciding which floor employees sit on can impact how they perceive themselves, with higher floors conveying an increased degree of importance. Key findings from research indicate the design considerations that can be implemented to send the right message.

Demonstrate employee value through design

The symbolic meaning of the workplace design has a significant impact on worker performance. Moezzi and Goins (2011) analysed the extensive data set that the Centre for the Built Environment has built up over the years and report that people not only see their companies values in their workplace design but they also read into the space for cues as to how they are being treated. This is backed up by Veitch (2012) who reports that ‘organizations implicitly communicate the value of the employees in the office environments provided.’

Design for the best talent

Radermacher and colleagues (2017) investigated the link between workplace design and talent attraction, finding that the young knowledge workers would forgo 10 per cent of their starting salary in order to work in offices with transparent facades, semi-open layouts and room for socialisation rather than more traditional workspaces.

Strike the right mood

When we are in a positive mood, our analytical performance, creativity, and ability to get along with others is improved. Research finds that we can actively design spaces to enhance mood. If the messages sent by design are perceived as positive, and they indicate things about ourselves, the people we work for, or with that we feel good about, they can put us in a positive mood. However, if the space is interpreted negatively, we become stressed which distracts us from our work and degrades our performance (Vischer, 2007).

Link design to the mission statement

The messages sent via workplace design more accurately convey what’s important to an organisation than those transmitted by mission statements and similar missives that are relatively easy to change (Becker and Steele, 1995). West and Wind (2007) are very clear: ‘Values encapsulated in words are just not as clear and concrete as those embodied in the office itself.’ Those within an organisation can accurately read the messages sent by their employer, but it can be hard for outsiders to do so (Schein, 1990). To ensure the ‘message’ is understood by all, it’s important to consult ‘outsiders’ when designing a space.

Consider organisational personality

In the same way employees learn information about each other by how they decorate their desks, organisational spaces also confer a significant degree of information about the company. Research by Luong and associates (2020) finds that workplace design can silently convey the internal social hierarchy of the office to employees.

The workplace is a medium for the expression of the ‘personality’ of the organisation (Sundstroms, 1986). Organisations that emphasize egalitarianism might have homogeneous work-stations, whereas organizations that emphasize egalitarianism, alongside autonomy and individuality might have work-stations that appear to be heterogeneous because of individual personalisation or participation in their design, but have few of the differences usually associated with status.

Cultivate a sense of belonging

In a 2023 article in the Harvard Business Review Caza and colleagues reported that workspaces can help us shape our professional identities, this can be important for cultivating a sense of inclusion. They argue that places can ‘satisfy various identity motives, such as our fundamental needs for a home, to feel belonging and acceptance, to learn and grow, and to have a sense of continuity over time’. Organisations can be places for social inclusion or exclusion, depending on how they signal alignment between who we are and who the organisation is.

Designing in metaphors

Research by Thibodeau and Boroditsky (2013) found that metaphors that people have about the workplace strongly impact their decision-making, helping to determine what ideas come to mind first as well as what option people think is best. But people are seldom aware of the impact that metaphor can have on them. Metaphors can be conveyed through design interventions such as:

  • Choi, Chang, Lee, and Chang (2016) found that an anonymous person against a warm-toned background is perceived as having a warmer personality than one against a colder background.
  • Chiou and Cheng (2013) share that lighting can have an impact on how morally we behave, with people more likely to be less generous and more selfishly in a dimly-lit room than a bright and open space.
  • Huangfu, Lv, Sheng, and Shi (2017) examined the relationship between cleanliness and what they refer to as ‘counter productive workplace behaviour’ or CWB. They found that employees working in a cleaner environment were more likely to consider acts of CWB as less acceptable than those working in messy environments.

Clearly silent signals sent via the design of the workplace matter, they can meaningfully influence individual and organizational performance and need to be managed with care.

Read more about subliminal messaging in the workplace in Dr Sally Augustin’s research round-up in our Innovation Zone.


Franklin Becker and Fritz Steele.  1995.  Workplace by Design:  Mapping the High-Performance Workscape.  Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.

Brianna Caza, Alyson Meister, and Blake Ashforth.  2023. “How Your Physical Surroundings Shape Your Work Life.” Harvard Business Review.

Wen-Bin Chiou and Ying-Yao Cheng.  2013. “In Broad Daylight, We Trust in God! Brightness, the Salience of Morality, and Ethical Behavior.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 36, pp. 37-42.

Jungsil Choi, Young Chang, Kiliae Lee, and Jae Chang. 2016. “The Effect of Perceived Warmth on Positive Judgment.”  Journal of Consumer Marketing, vol. 33, no. 4, pp. 235-244.

Anna Dorfman, Danny Ben-Sharar, and Daniel Heller. “Power and Vertical Locations: A Socioecological Perspective.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, in press.

Gang Huangfu, Feng Lv, Cheng Sheng, and Xiaochen Shi.  2017. “Effect of Workplace Environment Cleanliness on Judgment of Counterproductive Work Behavior.” Social Behavior and Personality, vol. 45, no. 4, pp. 599-604.

Mischel Luong, Kim Peters, Courtney von Hippel, and Mylyn Dat. 2020. “Fitting Into the Workplace: The Motivational Implications of Self-Space Identity Compatibility at Work.” In Oluremi Ayoko and Neal Ashkanasy (eds.), Organizational Behaviour and the Physical Environment, Routledge, New York, pp. 113-127.

Mithra Moezzi and John Goins. 2011. “Text Mining for Occupant Perspectives on the Physical Workplace.”  Building Research and Information, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 169-182.

Katharina Radermacher, Martin Schneider, Anja Iseke, and Tobias Tebbe. 2017. “Signaling to Young Knowledge Workers Through Architecture?  A Conjoint Analysis.”  German Journal of Human Resource Management (Zeitschrift fur Personalforschung), vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 71-93.

Edgar Schein.  1990. “Organizational Culture.” American Psychologist, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 109-119.

Eric Sundstrom and Mary Sundstrom.  1986.  Work Places: The Psychology of the Physical Environment in Offices and Factories.  Cambridge University Press:  New York.

Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky. 2013. “Natural Language Metaphors Covertly Influence Reasoning.” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 1, e52961.

Jennifer Veitch.  2012. “Work Environments.”  In Susan Clayton (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology.  Oxford University Press:  New York, pp. 248-275.

Jacqueline Vischer. 2007. “The Effects of the Physical Environment on Job Performance: Towards a Theoretical Model of Workspace Stress.” Stress and Health, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 175-184.

Alfred West and Yoram Wind. 2007. “Putting the Organization on Wheels: Workplace Design at SEI.” California Management Review, vol. 49, no. 2, pp. 138 – 153.

Sally Augustin is a practicing environmental design psychologist and editor of Research Design Connections, based in Chicago. She provides regular scientific commentary for the Academy’s Innovation Zone on new academic research in work and workplace.
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