Silvabrand | Can Branding Bring Employees Back To The Office?
Silva Brand

Can Branding Bring Employees Back To The Office?

May 14, 2023 | by Team Silva
4 min

Originally published on

We’ve all heard that, in the era of working from home, the traditional office is on its last legs. Where previous generations of white-collar workers were tethered to a desk, today’s knowledge workers are digital nomads who want to work where they want. And there’s compelling evidence to back this up: The national vacancy rate—the percentage of empty offices out of the entire inventory of available space—was 16.5% in February (it was just over half of that at the beginning of 2020). Moreover, workers are bristling when being asked to return to the office by the likes of companies like Amazon, Disney and Starbucks. For example, 5,000 Amazon employees signed a petition asking the company to drop the mandate.

But sounding the death knell for the five-day-a-week office may be premature. Consider the fact that more than 123 million square feet of office space were under construction nationally at the end of February. Also, according to JLL Research, “buildings delivered in 2015 or later had 86.8 million square feet of net absorption”—the difference between space leased and space vacated—“while buildings older than that had negative net absorption of 246.5 million square feet.” It is not necessarily the office that’s at risk, but rather the office of the past. And I think companies can solve this problem with branding.

How Did We Get Here?

The development of the modern office has taken a strange and twisted path during the last 100 years. Many believe it started with Frederick Taylor, who based his designs on open-floor factories with one goal in mind: workplace productivity. These spaces were panopticons heavily surveilled by managers and punch card clocks and didn’t prioritize worker privacy or satisfaction. In the mid-1900s, a generation of designers challenged the paradigm of the worker as a machine. Most memorably, Herman Miller introduced the Action Office in 1968, a new model of flexible, semi-enclosed workspaces designed to boost energy, information sharing and job performance. Miller’s own website quotes designer Robert Propst as saying: “Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment.” Think desks of varying heights, modular furniture and demountable partitions (the latter became the basis for the cubicle).

By the millennial era, cubicles were being overturned in favor of a new type of workplace—one that would allow solo and collaborative work and host learning and social programming. This was the era of beers on tap and foosball tables. As much as I enjoyed the mid-afternoon Ping-Pong match or pop-up cocktail stations, I always recognized these as gimmicks and not real solutions to the underlying crisis of the workplace; we were distracting knowledge workers from the fundamental tedium of being in a work environment. You could have used the Propst quote verbatim to describe life even at these offices—they still sapped vitality, blocked talent and frustrated accomplishment.

So, How Can Branding Solve The Workplace Problem?

I believe that companies worldwide need to change the office from a place that supports a brand to an actual brand community itself. We need to acknowledge workers in offices not simply as paid ambassadors of the company but also as people who derive the same resonances that consumers do—they believe in a mission, a vision, values and promise.

In their classic branding article “Getting Brand Communities Right,” Susan Fournier and Lara Lee described a brand community as “a group of ardent consumers organized around the lifestyle, activities, and ethos of the brand.” They went on to say that “people participate in communities for a wide variety of reasons—to find emotional support and encouragement, to explore ways to contribute to the greater good, and to cultivate interests and skills, to name a few.”

When this article was published, nobody considered employees as the people who spend the most time talking and thinking about a brand. When companies did think about internal brand enabling, they did it in largely cosmetic, top-down ways—by deploying logos and brand colors in their workspaces and handing out talking points and merchandise (I own a lot of branded tee shirts).

The Office As A Brand Community

The real way we bring workers back to the office is by deploying brand through community scripts enacted in the workplace. Drawn from the world of social sciences, scripts are simply the rules of engagement in any space based on core cultural norms that influence thinking, speaking and behavior.

In their article, Fournier and Lee mentioned nine archetypal community scripts that could be deployed to design brand communities. These are all ones we instinctively recognize: the Tribe (a place for deep social connections and traditions), “the Fort (an exclusive place where insiders feel protected),” “the Summer Camp (a periodic experience that reaffirms connections),” “the Patio (a semiprivate place that facilitates in-depth, meaningful connections),” and “the Bar (a public space that grants reliable but shallow connections).”

For landlords and tenants, this means using the interior buildout to support these scripts and then implementing programming that can turn the office from a productivity factory into a place where people can be inspired and nourished. This is soul work.

Companies like Bark and Cinco have already done this with scripts that evoke concepts we call Journey, Companionship and Workshop. But you can accomplish this in B- and C-class buildings with simple, modular furniture. Imagine a gathering space where the furniture faces each other like a sewing circle—a great venue for regular meetups about conflict, mental health or work-life balance. Or consider a patio where junior members of a team can work without interference from supervisors, a dais performance space where people can periodically showcase ideas or special expertise, or a double-height space where people can experience the history of a brand and draw from lessons learned (we call this the Cathedral).

These spaces can orchestrate a journey every day between modes of thinking and feeling based on the core of your brand—a true multichannel brand experience. Offices won’t attract people, especially the millennial and Gen Z cohort, back until they become true brand houses.