Insights

How Corporate Culture Influences Workplace Design

Originally published in Building Operating Management.

How Corporate Culture Influences Workplace Design

The day of the cookie-cutter workplace is over. There are companies for whom cubicles remain an efficient and effective solution to housing workers. But even the most traditional enterprises have discovered that the best workplace is one that reinforces the company’s culture. The workplace is one of the truest expressions of a brand—a living testament to company culture and values that impacts employees and customers alike, every day.

The single most common theme heard from facility managers? They want a workplace that aligns with the company’s culture.

This importance of brand-aligning space is even more crucial as the Baby Boom generation ages and younger workers, with different values and desires, enter the workplace amid fierce competition for workers.

When prospective employees—or customers—first walk in the door, will they see a soul-deadening array of monochromatic installations? Or will they find themselves in a space that bursts with the promise of collaboration, creativity, and thoughtful attention to their needs? Collaboration among all parties in the design process is the key to creating a workplace that announces: This is who we are.

Architecture and design are team activities in which the facility manager plays a critical role. The ideal process is one that reflects the dedication and sensibility of the facility manager as much as the contributions of the architect, designer, and engineer. The best design process also embraces input from employees. The people who staff your workplace have a good idea of what they need to do their jobs well—and what they’d like to work even better.

The design and layout of space can encourage the kind of cooperation that nurtures a culture where great things happen. And great culture is the secret sauce for a thriving company. Let’s look at how this simple idea can come to life.

One Space, Many Uses

Digital Measures, a fast-growing software company based in Milwaukee that serves the higher-education market, had outgrown its space. Despite the desperate need for more room, leaving it behind was a tough decision. They had a great space they loved, which had served them well. Their challenge was to create a bigger, better space that retained the flavor of the place where they’d built their success.

Digital Measures new office space is airy and light-filled, with floor to ceiling windows. An employee survey had showed that staff was interested in access to daylight and views.

An employee survey, commissioned with support from the C-suite, revealed that Digital Measures employees were interested in accessibility to daylight and views, better acoustics, a conference space large enough for community meetings, accommodations for staff members ranging from Generation Z to Baby Boomers, and a rooftop terrace with views of Milwaukee and Lake Michigan.

Their new space sits atop a historic building combined with a new addition in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, the city’s booming arts and fashion district. With an open floor plan, floor-to-ceiling windows, glass interior walls, and an atrium spanning two of its five floors, it’s airy and light-filled.

Yet within that space are many areas that serve different needs. All staff have access to small, private rooms—especially the sales staff, who tend to be the noisy ones.

There are a variety of conference rooms and touchdown spaces of varying sizes, as well as a large, open kitchen adjoining a collaborative work, meeting, and entertaining space. That also provides a space for the whole company to meet, which many organizations say is a must-have.

A connecting stair between two floors became a showplace branding feature: a “mug wall” displaying coffee mugs from each of the hundreds of client campuses Digital Measures visits. This feature creates a unique connection that highlights the company’s essential mission for every employee and visitor.

Employees also got their rooftop terrace, a feature that is increasingly in demand. Organizations really value the ability to connect with the outdoors.

New Concepts in Office Design Gain Momentum

WELL buildings embody a holistic approach that includes a wide array of factors including light, water, air, comfort, nourishment, fitness, and mind.

Material choices such as reclaimed wood send a message of sustainability and connection to the Earth. For one organization, a living wall of moss serves as a 60-square-foot invitation to well-being that greets everyone who comes through the door.

Companies are changing their cafeteria programs, taking their fitness offerings to a new level. WELL buildings not only are more sustainable, they create a fundamental sense that the employer is interested in the well-being of its employees.

It’s one more area in which an organization can design physical space to support a culture that tells employees they are valued.

Cubes versus Benching?

For some workplaces, cubicles remain the most effective workplace tool for housing employees. Many companies still ask for cubes. Some kinds of work need heads-down concentration that might not be available in an open floor plan design.

In these cases, a lower cube height can bring a greater sense of openness and collaborative opportunity while retaining a degree of privacy.

Companies such as accounting and law firms require a heightened level of confidentiality for their client work; these companies are less likely to adopt a more open design.

There is a great interest in the benching system for maximizing space. Benching occupies a smaller footprint, reducing real estate cost, and helps businesses maintain their competitive edge. The openness, flexibility, and versatility of benching works well for tech companies whose businesses rely heavily on employee collaboration to generate new ideas and foster innovation.

Some longtime cube-dwellers have difficulty making the adjustment. In such cases, organizations turn to change management efforts to help their employees transition to a new culture. Change management sessions emphasize the importance of empathy and listening. Employees who are worried about losing their privacy with benching solutions and lower workstations are usually more accepting of change when they are encouraged to think beyond the “me” space to anticipate the coolness of the “we” space in the new design.

Letting employees talk about their fears and concerns and engaging them in the design process is extremely important in helping them be more accepting of impending changes. Not every employee ask can be accommodated, yet just the very act of asking and listening goes a long way in bridging the gap between employer and employee in this change process.

Designing for “We”

New concepts in design can be very cost-efficient. Recently, a national organization had a call-center business that was exploding. Their 70,000-square-foot floor plate needed to be reconfigured to accommodate 200 more employees.

They converted to a benching model with varied gathering, touchdown, and meeting spaces. The “I” space became much less, but the “we” space became much greater. That builds culture. And if an organization is using the same space while getting 200 more people into it, that’s a great business decision.

If space is designed for “we,” employees use the whole campus, not just their own corner. They quickly discover that their workspace goes beyond that five-foot stretch of bench with their name on it. They can sit in the café, or a break room, or an inviting phone room. Boundaries break down; ideas and camaraderie flow.

These spaces are functional and multi-purpose, yet bring an undeniable air of cool. They’re sexy. They attract people, and that generates collaboration and innovation.

One organization realized that employees were leaving the building and driving a half-mile to a Starbucks for coffee breaks. It was a simple solution to include a coffee bar in their newly reconfigured space, a change that will easily pay for itself over time while sending a message that the company cares about its employees’ comfort.

At the same time, many organizations are willing to pay for dramatic, signature features that will bring an unforgettable impact to their workplace. These organizations want memorable spaces, and that opens up a host of unique design options that can bring home the company’s values in a visual, visceral way.

People, Purpose, Principles: How Workplace Design Responds To Corporate Culture

Designing to a culture is more than gut feeling—although that will always play a role. In building design, science and art always go hand in hand. But to be truly effective, the design team must be steeped in the company’s DNA in a way that won’t happen with a walk-through or a few casual conversations. It is useful to create a process for generating insights about a company’s culture that will help keep the whole team focused on a direction. One way to do that is to look at “The Six P’s”:

  • Purpose: What is the company’s reason for being? It starts with a vision or mission statement.
  • Principles: What are the key values the company lives by every day? These define the core of company culture.
  • Practices: What steps does the company take to bring those values into play consistently? Values have little importance unless they are embodied in a company’s practices.
  • People: What do they need? How can design be informed by them? No company can build a coherent culture without people who either share its core values or possess the willingness and ability to embrace those values.
  • Plot: What is the company’s story? Any organization has a unique history—a unique story with a plot. And the ability to unearth that history and craft it into a narrative is a core element of culture creation.
  • Place: What do the employees and the company need in order to achieve their purpose in a way that brings their values and culture to life in a physical space? Place shapes the organization’s culture.

A company’s culture can reflect a strong sense of support for employee well-being and engagement with nature. A workplace that fits a company’s culture allows employees to be more naturally engaged. That stimulates growth and innovation. The design, furnishings, and finishes of a workplace can bring these qualities to life organically.

A space can be beautifully designed, but unless it’s infused with the company’s culture and personality, it’s just another pretty room. The culture is what makes it unique and memorable.

The insights generated at one Fortune 500 company led to a focus on natural connections in their space. Views of a beautiful lake on their property were maximized, and their interior spaces were organized around the concept of a river running through the workplace. The lake provided inspiration from how entire civilizations have thrived alongside rivers throughout history, and an organic circulation path winds through a geometric office layout, echoing how grid and linear forms of cities have sprouted up along rivers.

This river theme was highlighted with graphics and materials that played off the life-giving qualities of water. The design was highly successful because the concept was consistent throughout and, most of all, it resonated with the culture the company was building.

Digging Deep

It’s important to think carefully yet boldly about decisions on workplace design. In particular, include the thoughts of employees. There’s real value in digging deep in the ideation process, and that includes the people who will work in the space being created.

These discussions can surface ideas and concerns that might not come up otherwise. Few employees will take the initiative to go to the boss with their ideas on office design. But many will have valuable insights that can be revealed through a careful, inclusive planning process.

Management often can gain information in this process that will inform them about managing the company in areas beyond the design of the workspace. As they implement the design, they often discover that their business can be improved by solving for other things, as well.

The value of an appealing, efficient workplace that reinforces company culture is greater than ever. In the competition to hire and—just as important—retain the best employees, the working environment is often a crucial factor. Designing for “we” makes concrete the often-ephemeral ideas of values and culture. It’s a fact of life in the 21st century that forward-looking companies can ill afford to ignore.