Companies are looking for two key things in any candidate they’re interviewing for a job: ability to do the work and ability to thrive at the company. Interview questions like “What type of work environment do you prefer?” evaluate the latter.
“How long are they going to stick around? That’s the question,” says Muse career coach Jennifer Sukola. Employees who mesh well with the company’s environment will be happier and, in turn, stay in the job longer and contribute more.
So answering the question is simple, right? Just tell the interviewer that your preferred environment matches up perfectly with the company’s environment. Not so fast. While your answer should take the company’s culture into account in a big way, it should also be truthful to who you are. “This is your interview, too,” Sukola points out.
“I encourage candidates to remember that this is the environment that they are going to be spending most of their waking hours in, so the only ‘right’ answer is the one that is honest and authentic for them,” says Muse career coach Jennifer Fink, CEO and founder of Fink Development.
Read on for our detailed advice on answering questions about your preferred or ideal work environment—with sample answers included!
What Is a “Work Environment” Anyway?
You may think of your work environment as just the physical location where you do work, but it’s much more than that. Environment encompasses a lot of things, Sukola says, including obvious factors like the office layout (offices vs. cubicles vs. an open plan) and whether it tends to be quiet or noisy.
But it also includes things like company culture and how you get your job done. Is most of your work collaborative or solo? How strictly structured is your work day? Is it important that you’re at your desk from 9 AM to 5 PM or are things more laid-back as long as you get your work done? How much do coworkers socialize (and how and when)? How much interaction do you have with your superiors? Is the office dog- or cat-friendly? Is your job description very strictly enforced or are you encouraged to pursue projects that interest you and to collaborate with other departments?
When you’re answering this question, don’t just talk about where you want your desk to be. Talk about what you need and want in a workplace to do the best job you can. Here’s how to figure that out:
Step 1: Get Clear on Your Workplace Priorities
The first step in answering “What type of work environment do you prefer?” or “What’s your ideal work environment?” is to know how you do your best work, says Sukola. For example, do you focus best working on your own in relative isolation? Or do you thrive in an environment that’s more collaborative and always has a lot of conversation going on?
Think about “what creates energy and engagement for you in your workplace, versus what leaves you drained and dreading the next day,” says Fink. Look back at past jobs and make a list of the aspects of the environment that really helped you get your best work done and another list of things that that slowed you down or made you dislike your job or company.
Once you have these lists, think about which items are most important to you and which might not matter as much. Maybe for you, the ability to come in a bit earlier in order to leave early is essential, but while you’d like to bring your dog to work, it’s not a dealbreaker if you can’t.
If you make your list at the start of your job search, as Fink recommends, you can actively search for a particular type of environment rather than seeing possible workplaces and trying to decide your own priorities in response. Plus, you’re going to encounter a lot of people talking up the positives of different aspects of their companies. If you haven’t laid out what you prefer and what you’re flexible on ahead of time, it’s easy to be swayed and end up somewhere that’s not actually a good fit.
Step 2: Research the Company’s Environment and Culture
Once you know what you want in a work environment, the next step is to research the company you’re interviewing with.
Start With the Job Description
Does it mention “collaborate with X team” right at the top of job duties or list “team player” as one of the first requirements? If so, it’s a good bet that at this company—or at least in this position—you can expect to spend a lot of time working with others. Mentions of “fast-paced” or “multitasking” might indicate that there’s a lot of variation in the workday and that you have to be on your toes to get things done quickly.
If a company is looking for someone who “understands that their job doesn’t end at 5 PM”—or, more subtly, “is available to work overtime” or “can work the occasional night and weekend”—well, listen to the words of Maya Angelou: “When someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time.” This job likely comes with expectations of long hours (either from home or at the office) and 24/7 email or phone connectivity. For similar reasons, take it to heart when a company lists a job that requires an employee to “work extremely well under pressure” (i.e. assume the environment is a stressful one).
Do Your Research Online
Check out the company’s website (or see if they have a Muse profile!) and look for what they say about their values and culture. Not every company lives up to their stated values, of course, but if you know what they’re working toward, you’ll have some idea of what to expect. Fink also suggests looking at the company’s “social media pages, reviews on Glassdoor, and any articles or features written about them.” As you read through all of these sources, look for patterns and recurring themes to help you get a better picture.
You should dig a bit deeper to understand what your prospective team is like as well. “The team culture is equally (if not more) important than the company’s culture,” Fink says, because that’s the smaller environment that’ll most directly affect your days. You could check out the LinkedIn profiles of several team members “to get a sense of the things they share and care about.”
Ask Lots of Questions
If at all possible, try to talk to someone who works (or worked) at the company who you won’t be interviewing with. There’s no better way to get a sense of the work environment and culture than from the employees themselves. This could take the form of an informational interview. Or if you were referred to the company by someone you know, be sure to talk to them about what it’s like to work there.
And just because you’ve started interviewing doesn’t mean your research should stop. You’ll probably talk to a number of different employees throughout the hiring process, and each one will have valuable insight into what it’s like to work at the company. Ask about the culture and environment at every stage and note the similarities (and differences) in people’s answers. (For example, are the managers saying something very different than their direct reports?)
Even if you don’t end up having to talk about your ideal work environment at any point in your interviews, you’ll be able to use everything you’ve learned when it comes to accepting or declining a job offer.
Step 3: Craft Your Response
Once you know what you want and what this company or team is like, it’s time to compare the two. In what ways do your workplace priorities align with the environment this job offers? Make a list and then focus on two to three key matching attributes.
Fink urges job seekers to avoid framing their answers negatively. Rather than focusing on aspects of past environments that you didn’t like and are hoping to avoid, highlight the things you do like and want in your future positions. You can almost always communicate the same information this way, but a positive framing makes you seem more enthusiastic—and keeps interviewers from worrying that you’ll end up bad-mouthing their company in the future.
For example, if a former manager wanted you to run every single email by them and noted when you walked in the door at 9:03 AM, don’t talk about how you hate being micromanaged. Instead, speak about how you enjoy autonomy and the freedom to prioritize your work.
When it comes to structuring your answer, Sukola recommends starting with how the work environments in your past roles helped you to be the best you can be. From there, you can highlight what’s most important to you and connect it to the company you’re interviewing with.
Here’s an example of what that might look like:
“I’ve really thrived in more collaborative environments. I prefer a setting where everyone’s input is taken into consideration because I believe approaching any project with a range of perspectives is better in the long run. For that reason, I also prefer an open office like you have here so that it’s easy to check in with other team members, my managers, and even people on other teams who might bring fresh ideas to a problem or have other areas of expertise. That being said, I really like the privacy rooms you pointed out because in some situations I do work better when I can step away and really focus to get things done after I’ve gotten the input I need.”
Or if you weren’t able to get a strong handle on a company’s environment, you might want to leave things a bit open-ended (while still making your absolute priorities clear) and use the question as an opportunity to learn more:
“I really like the environment in my current position. My manager is a great resource and always willing to help out when I run into an issue, but they trust me to get my work done so I have a lot of freedom in how I schedule and prioritize, which is very important to me. Everyone has their own cubicle, so it’s often pretty quiet to get our work done, but we all get lunch together and our team has a lot of check-in meetings and communicates frequently via Slack so we still get a lot of opportunities to bounce ideas off each other. So I like both individual and more collaborative work. How would you describe the mix here?”
“Ultimately a hiring manager will want to hire someone who is going to work well with their team,” Fink says. If you’ve done the research and self-reflection necessary to know that you’re that person, all you have to do is tell your interviewer.
But what if your work environment priorities don’t line up with those at the company you’re interviewing for? Then it might be a good idea to evaluate whether this is really the right job for you.
If almost none of your priorities are met or if a work environment includes something you know you can’t (or don’t want to) handle, you might want to consider withdrawing from consideration for the position. I was once told during a phone interview for a salaried position that it was mandatory for everyone at the company to work on-site from 9 AM to 7 PM, five days a week. I was looking for a good work-life balance, so I decided to withdraw.
You might be tempted to ignore red flags if you’ve been job searching for a while, but ultimately, you’ll be much happier if you’re in an environment that suits your work style. So be cautious as you proceed and don’t be afraid to ask more questions to see if this is a place where you can thrive.