I recently came across an American statistic that stated how disengaged teams were costing their economy an estimated USD 1 trillion a year. The statement was part of a white paper titled ‘Culture and Space: How Engaging Workspaces Can Lead to Transformation and Growth’ by global furniture major Haworth.
It got me thinking about the role of culture in workspace design, and their relationship with each other. Where does one start and the other begin? Do they have clear beginnings and endings?
If culture is the manifestation of our ideas, customs and social behaviour, then as a workspace designer, I’m interested in the interplay between culture and office design. I believe that they’re symbiotic – each flows into and flows from the other – and I’m charged with using my knowledge, of the grammar and logic of design, to physically manifest my client organisation’s values and culture, in the workspaces I design for them.
A very engaging Cornell HR Review article, ‘Physical Extensions of Corporate Culture’, covered how workplace design was strategically aligned to a company’s ethos, citing examples from offices as diverse as Deloitte, IBM, Disney, Google and P&G. For me, the most thought-provoking portion discusses how strategic office design is NOT a one-size-fits-all approach, but is a highly-individualised proposition.
To that, I’ll add: while I have the training and technical expertise to design for workspaces, I don’t believe that a client’s space is ever a ‘blank slate’. Every commission is already invisibly layered with my client’s expectations and parameters.
As my firm’s principal, I get the opportunity to interpret this layer through various filters; such as the questions my team and I pose, our observations of their team’s interpersonal behaviour, and of course, the client’s brief itself. The outcome, i.e. our design brief, results in the final, collaboratively arrived-at workspace – a highly-individualised proposition indeed.
A decade, or even 5 years ago, the thought of workspace design as a strategic business decision would not have crossed the mind of most commissioning clients. Today however, I find many of my clients engage with me – to varying degrees of involvement, on design decisions that impact or reinforce their company’s culture. Clients today sense, or intrinsically understand, the business value of these decisions.
So why is ‘culture’ gaining so much ground of late? My interactions and reading lead me to think that attracting and retaining good talent is one of the key struggles an organisation is faced with today – and workspace design is a valuable tool in this struggle. I’ve touched on it before in my own pieces about millennials, and the Steelcase interaction evening I attended last year.
Even if a business can’t exactly match a larger competitor’s pay-check offer, they’re coming to realise that culture (and by extension, the workplace) is a differentiating factor that recruits use when shortlisting firms that they want to work/stay on with.
This ‘360o Magazine’ article affirms that companies that boost their team’s sense of authenticity at work (opposed to the super-formal ‘yes-man’ work-cultures of let’s say, the License Raj) are better at attracting and retaining talent. It cites a survey over 515 SME companies which throws up some eye-catching results:
47% of the companies polled invite their team to bring outside passions into the workplace
90% of the respondents identify culture as foundational to the success of their companies
80% believe their physical environment plays a role in fostering vibrant culture
As a workspace designer, these are the kind of thoughts that I use for fodder to fuel my growth as an innovator, and evangelist for positive change in my area of expertise. And though a large part of my readings is from foreign publications, I do believe that in my area, especially since my end-users are mostly millennials, it can only benefit me to stay ahead of the thought curve.
An early piece of reading that sent me thinking along this direction, is an HBR piece from a few years back about “Workspaces that Move People” On reading it now, I recall a number of ‘Aha!’ moments the article triggered in my mind the first time:
“Recognize office space as not just an amortized asset, but as a strategic tool for growth.”
The article went on to talk about how, by pure ‘cost per sq. foot’ metrics, the space spent on corridors, ‘break-out’ areas, smoking rooms and so on, could be regarded ‘wasted’ space. But the business benefits accruing from deliberately engineering spaces that allow for casual collisions amongst team members , far outweighed traditional cost measurements. Chance encounters and interactions between knowledge workers improve performance, it explains, and some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions.
My addition to this is that in the Indian context, our traditions are an additional layer that allow for casual collisions among team members, think of Diwali and various state-specific celebrations like Onam, or Gudi Padwa. They give us the chance for a break from the typical groupings of colleagues, and are opportunities for ad-hoc interactions, shows of creativity and insight opportunities.
“Socializing new team members… becomes much simpler when a recruit is able to see the culture in action, before even hearing the recruiter or interviewer make their pitch.”
An accurate display of corporate culture is in a sense akin to the company wearing its heart on its sleeve. This transparency by an organisation has a two-way function – for new recruits, the office design lets them quickly read the cultural cues on display, and align themselves accordingly. For recruiters, their space is effective in ensuring that aspiring team members with the right cultural fit are attracted to join them. Eventually, a workplace properly aligned to the firm’s ethos attracts well-matched talent, the space energises them, and in turn contributes to better team performance – and consequently, business performance.
As the value evangelist for a firm myself, and a workplace designer, I am at the confluence where this line of thinking meets actual execution of workplace design. Exciting times lie ahead…
Do let me know what your thoughts about work culture are, and how you feel your workplace design either reflects, or contravenes it.