Culture Beyond the Cube

When you're trying to align your culture with your purpose, one of the areas that you should consider is the way your office design reflects that alignment. If your work is creative and forward thinking, but your office environment is dull and boring, that sends mixed messages to employees and customers alike.

So how can you align your culture with office design to ensure employee engagement with your purpose and encourage customer engagement with your brand? Start by thinking beyond the cubicle to office designs that suit the cultural values you want to promote.

 

Culture Goes Beyond the Cubicle

Believe it or not, there was a time when the cubicle represented not drudgery and sameness, but freedom and individuality. Panel-based office systems - later called cubicles - first rose to popularity in the mid-60s as a reaction against the completely open, furniture-based office floor plan that dominated the American workplace from the 1920s onwards.

The original open offices that dominated the pre-war landscape up through the 1950s were vast expanses of floor space filled with identical desks with little or no privacy. All desks faced the supervisor, who sat in an office where he (always a he) could oversee his underlings and ensure efficiency and productivity. These designs might have been efficient, they were not conducive for work that required individual engagement and information sharing.

As a reaction against these "white collar factory" environments, Herman Miller originated the first panel-based office plan, then called the "Action Office." Designers Robert Probst and George Nelson intended the Action Office to be a space where efficiency and productivity could reign, without trampling the needs of the individual. According to Herman Miller's Global Brand Director, Sam Grawe, "Action Office was all about enabling the flow of information as jobs transitioned from being about repetitive, task-based work, to being about sharing and distributing information more broadly across an organization."

In comparison to office designs that came before it, the panel-based cubicle system really was a forward thinking idea. Instead of all workers having a desk alongside potentially hundreds of others on an open floor, each worker had their own individual space that put them in touch with the tools, technology and information they needed to do their work. It was a revolutionary idea in office design; one that was about shaping the environment to meet the needs of people, rather than forcing people to fit the environment.

Unfortunately, as business needs changed, some of the focus on people was lost. Originally, the Action Office panels were intended to be fully movable. As more workers came to rely on technology - computers, telephones and the like - the panels needed to be electrified, and became more fixed. The needs of the organization once again trumped those of the individual.

That is, until recently. Today, office designs are evolving again to meet changing needs. Because so much work today is done in teams, rather than individually, spaces that allow for a sense of teamwork are better suited both physically and culturally for the modern world of work. Innovative companies are seeking spaces that are better at fostering creativity, collaboration and teamwork. Designers are now returning to a more open environment that fosters creativity, without squelching the individual. To find the right balance, designers at Herman Miller begin by focusing on purpose, or your company's "why," as one of the driving forces that can shape your approach to office design.

According to Grawe, "Purpose is both a fundamental human need, as well as the driving force that guides an organization or individual." This focus on purpose - and other human needs like belonging and achievement - has led Herman Miller to create what it calls the Living Office. The idea behind the Living Office is to connect a company's people to its purpose through design.

Says Grawe, "Living Office begins with human needs but also engages with what is unique to each individual and organization; balancing common purpose with the individual activities being performed, balancing belonging and the need for autonomy. It recognizes the duality involved in modern-day collaborative office work; it allows organizations to identify what kind of environment that is right for them, and build around that."

 

The 4 C's of Culture - Aligning Design with Purpose

So how do you decide what design will best support your organization's purpose, or why? This is where the "how" comes in. That's the difference between purpose - why you do what you do, or what drives you - and culture. So a good place to start is by really understanding what kind of culture you have. Just as no two individuals are exactly the same, neither are all office cultures are the same. What drives or characterizes one organization may not drive another. Good design is about aligning culture with the environment that will best support it.

This idea is not new. As early as 1983, researchers developed a model of cultural attributes that effective organizations tended to share, called the Competing Values Framework. The framework identified four cultural orientations and values held by those organizations:

 

  • Collaborative cultures that value commitment, communication and development;
  • Creative cultures that value innovation, transformation and agility;
  • Controlling cultures that value efficiency, timeliness, consistency and uniformity; and
  • Competitive, market-driven cultures that value market share, goal achievement and profitability.

This is still a valid model for thinking about the kinds of cultural values that ought to drive your office design, which is why it is still in wide use among designers today. But keep in mind that these attributes all reside on a spectrum. Every organization, even collaborative and creative ones, also have some competitive and controlling aspects. However, typically there will be some cultural values that are more deeply rooted to your purpose than others.

In other words, just because you have a collaborative culture doesn't mean you don't care about market share, it simply means that your purpose is collaborative - more oriented toward purpose and belonging - rather than competitively oriented toward profit, market share or even individual status. Understanding where you fall in the Competing Values Framework helps to identify the type of office design that best aligns with your culture.

 

From Competition and Control to Collaboration and Creativity

Generational effects are also playing a role in how companies are aligning their culture, values and purpose with their office designs. As workplace demographics shift away from Baby Boomers toward Gen Xers to Millennials, office spaces that foster values like collaboration and creativity, rather than competition and control, are more attractive to younger workers. Millennials - and to a lesser degree, Gen Xers as well - have been raised in a more collaborative, less competitive environment than past generations. This impacts the types of environments where they are most comfortable working.

According to the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), these generational differences will impact both your culture and your office design. Millennials, for instance, are more tribal and collaborative in nature. They value the opportunity to work in teams, and to work in close proximity to their teammates who they feel are also friends. "Millennials are more comfortable with the idea that work is intertwined with other aspects of their lives, and design reflects that. Workplace mobility--the idea that you have multiple places to do your work--is becoming increasingly popular in workplace design, which is why you're seeing more lounge areas, cafe seating, and breakout spaces in offices. Those elements put collaboration and teamwork center stage--it can literally happen anywhere--and it invites employees to be comfortable, casual, and creative, all of which contribute positively to more productivity," says Cheryl S. Durst, Executive Vice President and CEO at International Interior Design Association.

Based on a recent IIDA roundtable on "Who, Where and How we Work," there are two main concepts that are driving today's workforces: connection and collaboration. A third concept - creep - has also come to characterize work-life, as the line between "work" and "not work" is blurred by the ability to work remotely with mobile devices.

All of these factors play into your office design and are influenced by your culture. In a culture that emphasizes collaboration, and de-emphasizes control, office designs should support those cultural values by providing spaces that allow teams to collaborate. In cultures that value creativity, office designs that foster it will enhance employee and customer engagement. And even in old-school, "command and control" environments of competition and control, the right office design should still be strongly influenced by the cultural values that your company seeks to promote.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.
PUBLISHED ON: JAN 11, 2017