Workplace Design as a Communication Tool for Reaching New Talent: Lessons from the Auto Industry

Technological change is actively disrupting the auto industry, the way it does business, and the products and services it develops for its customers. What was once an industry that designed vehicles for individual customers is now an industry that will increasingly design vehicles and mobility solutions for fleet owners, cities, and other mobility platforms. As the industry meets these challenges and opportunities with new innovation, its leaders will recruit the next generation of talent by drawing from outside the industry and looking from a wide range of sectors such as urban planning, artificial intelligence, fashion design, and hospitality. 

I recently had the opportunity to speak on a panel in front of a group of auto industry leaders at the annual Management Briefing Seminar in Traverse City, Michigan, hosted by the Center for Automotive Research. I explained how a strategic approach to workplace design can help attract new talent and sustain a thriving workplace culture that will help the industry innovate and grow. The panel discussion touched on a number of related themes.

I discussed how workplace design can mimic a company’s innovation strategy. In referencing examples of work from SAP, Capital One Digital Labs, HP, & MINI, I illustrated how companies are using space to support a range of activities along the innovation value chain. These include:

  • Ideation spaces to support the generation of ideas

  • Maker-spaces to support hands-on prototyping and tinkering

  • Coworking spaces to invite others to work alongside larger organizations and build community

  • Executive briefing centers to showcase innovation to customers and partners, and generate feedback

  • Event spaces and other public facing amenities that link a company brand to customers and provide a platform for extending the brand’s reach

The discussion also touched on some recent research findings fueling the ever-evolving debate around the benefits and drawbacks of open offices. Some industries have professional norms that suggest one form over another (for example, the culture of the finance sector and the energy of knowledge sharing on a trading floor). The “ideal” setting in other industries is more evolutionary and a representative of a company’s desire to communicate certain values that align with business changes. For some companies in the auto sector, this could mean shedding symbols of an industrial-hierarchical legacy and, instead, projecting an image of flexibility and speed-to-market that mirrors the agile nature of technology companies and firms in other creative sectors.

Good workplace design and the messaging of how it links to business practices and innovation strategy can serve company recruiting strategies. As employees increasingly look to job sites such as Glassdoor and Indeed to read company reviews and learn about prospective employers, I referenced in our discussion the fact that many organizations (and their employees) will post images of their workspaces as a point of pride. In the panel, we discussed how younger employees care about workplace design and amenities as part of a holistic experience that supports their engagement and helps nurture meaningful relationships at work. Companies looking to recruit from beyond the traditional pool of applicants within their industry could showcase their work settings during the interview process as a way to further strengthen their case to prospective employees. This enables companies to control the message about the organizational values signaled by their workplace design. 

The take-aways from this panel discussion are relevant beyond the auto industry and can serve other industrial sectors whose businesses and typical job functions are evolving with advances in technology, artificial intelligence, and automation. Regardless of industry, the point is clear – that workplace design is a communicative tool that symbolizes organizational goals and aspirations, and can help shape an organization’s innovation and growth narrative to prospective employees as well as other key stakeholders.


By Pete Bacevice, HLW Director of Research