Creating Collaborative Culture Through Office Design

  A company's culture is its only long-term competitive advantage. Throughout the lifecycle of an enduring business, team, product, and execution play key roles: rockstar executives will leave, network effects can fade, and new challengers emerge increasingly frequently.   How can you help your team live a vibrant culture once you've defined it? You can cultivate culture in your workplace by building it literally. Here are five ways to integrate culture into your physical environment within the context of your organization.  

Defining Corporate Culture

  MIT Sloan School of Management professor emeritus Edgar Schein developed one of the most popular theories on culture. According to Schein's book Organizational Culture and Leadership, culture can be described as a pyramid with three levels. There are fundamental underlying assumptions shared by a team-unstated beliefs and modes of thinking-followed by espoused beliefs and values, which are goals and aspirations expressed in a mission statement.   The final level of the pyramid consists of artifacts—tangible manifestations of underlying assumptions and values. Dress code, your logo, the structure of team presentations, and your physical environment are all cultural artifacts.   Artifacts are the main way teams interact with culture. As the most prominent artifact in your organization, your office is a crucial vehicle for ensuring culture is not only known, but lived and perpetuated. Let’s dig deeper into five of Design your office to convey your organization's point of view on Schein's basic cultural assumptions.  
  1. Space

  In both a figurative and a physical sense, how close are you to the members of your team? Do certain parts of your organization function separately from the rest? Space is among the most fundamental of Schein’s basic assumptions, and clearly relates to the layout and nature of your workplace.   Open layouts with integrated common spaces foster a sense of connection, fluidity and creativity among your team members, while cubicles or private office layouts are conducive to execution and focused collaboration in smaller groups.  
  1. Authority

  How does your organization consider authority? How do you decide what to do? The distribution of team members within your space serves as an implicit and powerful expression of cultural assumptions with regards to authority.   In a hierarchical business, the “corner office” with an executive desk is a physical symbol that rank has its privileges. On the other hand, a “flat” culture could disperse managers among employees, equipping everyone with the same tools and furniture. A compromise layout might offer executives privacy in inner offices, but distribute corner offices with the gorgeous views to pods of junior employees.  
  1. Time

  Do your team members rely on scheduled meetings or serendipitous collaboration? Do people work long hours or keep a typical schedule? If you took the clocks in your office away, would your team be more productive or less? The notion of time as a driver of culture may seem abstract, but the awareness of time deeply inflects how your organization works.   Organizations where the awareness of time matters more—professional services and other client-oriented businesses—are well served by a design that helps colleagues hold each other accountable. Semi-open bullpens facilitate collective time management, while clear barriers maintain transparency in meeting spaces and private offices.   For teams that depend less on time—creative agencies, startups, research groups—physical design can blur the boundaries between home and office. Soft seating, common areas and casual furnishings smooth the awareness of time passing, while private nooks and booths let team members cloister themselves for indeterminate periods of creativity.  
  1. Truth

  How does your team know what is happening? Do you trust someone to tell the truth, do you decide it together, or do you prove it with empirical metrics?   In cultures where controlling information matters—legal offices, or sensitive R&D—your office should reinforce the importance of visual and auditory confidentiality. Decreased density is complemented by private booths, sound attenuating privacy panels and high-backed furniture. Furniture can redirect people in transit to paths limiting spontaneous interaction, complemented by central spaces for planned collaboration.   In transparent cultures, open floor plans permit maximum visual and auditory equivalence. Visual freedom can be complemented by screens broadcasting key metrics for all to see, while collaborative spaces are accessible and clear.  
  1. Relationships

  Are you individuals or a collective? Do team members express their personalities or conform to a uniform style? Relationships are the fundamental building block of any culture, organizational or otherwise.   In cultures where disciplined adherence to a shared norm is most important, the office should embody those norms though cohesive decor and colors. A roomy event space should have the capacity to hold everyone in the organization for company meetings.   In individual cultures where free expression matters most—creatives, journalism—teams and individuals should be free to customize furniture, lighting and decor within a broad aesthetic. Personalization should extend to common spaces, which can contain modular furniture suitable for any configuration of people.  

Build Culture Into Your Space

  Designing your office to reflect your cultural assumptions can make a real difference in a growing organization. When you design your office with care, it returns the favor—helping your team grow beyond “culture” that is window dressing for the recruiting page on your website, and into an authentic culture that carries your organization to the next level.