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Designing Corporate Workplaces: Lessons Learned from Retail Design Expert, Sarah De Leon

coDesign recently had the pleasure of speaking with retail expert, Sarah De Leon, who for the last 15 years, has worked in retail design at companies including Apple and Google. While Sarah focuses primarily on the design of retail spaces, we found her design advice to be applicable to the work that we do at coDesign, designing corporate workplaces. In fact, Sarah made us realize that the design of a retail space is the design of a workplace, as retail spaces are work environments for store managers and other retail employees.

In conversation, Sarah made two important points. First, that a good design can help with employee retention, and also, that your workplace, whether it be a retail space or corporate office, should feel like your company’s home. We’ve explored each of these ideas below:

1. A well-designed workplace can aid in employee retention.

According to Sarah, “...employee retention is 100% about employees feeling valued, respected, and a part of [the company].” Our physical work environments, however, have not always made employees feel valued. When Sarah began her career in retail design 15 years ago, almost the entirety of a project’s budget was allocated to the customer-facing front-of-house, and most of a project’s square footage was too. This meant that employees were left to take their breaks in small, makeshift spaces in the back-of-house, leaving them feeling like an afterthought.

Over the last 15 years, however, a major shift has taken place in the way that retail spaces are designed. Today, smart retailers are allocating more space and resources to the back-of-house. In doing so, they’ve given employees the ability to comfortably hold team meetings, take breaks, and grab a quick snack from the snack bar. This design shift is the direct result of employers recognizing the value of their workers and acknowledging it in the physical space. In Sarah’s experience, it’s led to happier employees, and thus, greater employee retention.

So what’s the takeaway for people working in corporate workplace roles? That they, too, should design workplaces that cater to their employees’ needs and desires. As in the retail world, doing so should lead to increased employee happiness, thereby reducing employee turnover which comes at a huge cost to an organization.

2. Your workplace should feel like your company’s home.

“Whenever you go home, especially if you’ve moved away from where you grew up… there’s something special about it. And that’s what the [workplace] should be for people. You don’t have to be home every weekend. You don’t have to be home every day. But when you do go home, there’s got to be something special about it,” shared Sarah.

All employees, regardless of whether they work in the retail or corporate worlds, want to feel a sense of belonging and a connection to the company that employs them. In the corporate workplace world, and with the transition to hybrid working, this has become increasingly important for companies to recognize. Under our new mode of operation, where employees are going into the office only a couple of days per week (if that), it’s crucial that the office feels welcoming. The workplace should reflect an organization’s brand, culture, and values, and offer special work settings and resources for employees that entice them to come in.


A huge thank you to Sarah De Leon for sharing her knowledge with us. Our conversation served as a reminder that all design inspiration for corporate workplaces does not need to come from within the corporate workplace world itself. Great lessons can be learned elsewhere!

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