The motivations to work

You are probably familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – those five levels that humans experience that go from basic needs to self-actualization. Employers can use Maslow’s theory to better understand what motivates people to work. Not surprising, a salary is not the strongest motivator.

The paycheck

English: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Resized,...

English: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Resized, renamed, and cropped version of File:Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs.svg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)The paycheck.

Maslow’s lowest two levels include the basic needs of life – food, shelter, etc. and safety. Similarly, the lowest level of motivation for employees is having a job or receiving a paycheck. These are your 8 hour per day workers. Whether they are productive or not, there is no emotional connection to the job. They simply need the job for security and to afford the things they need to survive.

The career

The next two levels on Maslow’s hierarchy are belonging and esteem, which are evident in workers who view their jobs as a career. These employees have ambition and are willing to put forth more effort in order to succeed and reach higher levels within an organization or industry. Relying on their character strengths, they give and receive respect to others and exude confidence. These people are motivated by opportunities for growth and learning.

The calling

The top level on Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization. These people connect their work with their life as a whole. They describe it as something they are called to do or something that brings real meaning to their lives. Their jobs are fulfilling and often say they would do it even if they didn’t get paid for it. The mission and values of an organization are often what attracts and retains these employees. These employees are intrinsically motivated and rely less on external factors.

Linking to design

I was excited to see this topic linked with architecture in a 2012 AIA virtual convention seminar. The premise was how to link employee happiness to workplace design. The speakers described various ways to translate motivators such as empowerment, respect, fun, and purpose into simple office design elements. For example, an employee recognition board highlighting accomplishments or major life events can demonstrate respect. Or, allowing employees contribute to the design of the workplace can generate a sense of ownership and excitement about coming to work. Moreover, research shows happier employees are more productive, tend to be more creative, and have stronger connections to the organization.

The key, though, is creating a workplace that embodies what the organization stands for. You can design a great workspace, but if it doesn’t connect with what employees sense and feel about the organization, it can actually erode employee trust and confidence. Thus, it is critical, before you ever put pen to paper, to fully understand the organizational culture and how employees work and communicate.

Sara Varlander conducted a case study on a company in Sweden who undertook a complete redesign of their offices. The findings showed that while some design elements successfully addressed problem areas; others created new difficulties. For example, the company added glass-enclosed meeting rooms on each floor of its 10-story building to increase transparency and trust. Instead, employees could then see when they were left out of certain meetings causing them to speculate why they were not invited and what the meeting participants were talking about.


  • As an employee, do you know what motivates you? Does your current workplace satisfy those motivations making you feel good about what you do?
  • As a manager, do you know what motivates your employees? Are you actively seeking ways to provide meaning and show respect to your employees?
  • As a designer, are you incorporating design elements aimed to address employee motivation? More importantly, do these design elements correlate with the mission and culture of the organization so they make sense to the employees?


AIA Virtual Convention (2012). Happiness and Architecture: Linking Design and Positive Psychology (26681-2). Retrieved from

Varlander, Sara (2012). Individual flexibility in the workpace: A spatial perspective. Journal of Applied Science 2012, 48:33.


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