Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast

Alex Gifford, Brand Communications Manager at Steelcase, gives us his take on the why the office is enduring and how to make it work better for all.

The death of the office has been foretold a hundred times but it endures and the body of evidence is growing that a place to gather, even for the ever growing population of agile workers, is more important than ever.

So why has the office endured? On the surface, evidence suggests:

  1. For many, it is still the most practical place to get work done or hold meetings.
  2. Not being visible in the organisation can mean being passed over for projects or promotion.
  3. Individuals find agile or teleworking can be quite lonely – there is a psychological need to be around people.

However, if we were to design to these criteria alone we could (and often do) end up with just another vanilla, corporate space that is functional but nobody loves, potentially fostering the much discussed disengagement of the workforce. Worse still, one could simply transpose a ‘look and feel’ seen in a workplace design coffee table book. Whilst Google’s spaces work for Google, that doesn’t mean they will be right for every other organisation.

Many organisations spend a great deal of time and resources fine-tuning the external perception of their brand but give little or no consideration to how those values translate to the workplace they provide. It is not enough to impose a dogmatic culture on a workforce these days. If we are to be engaged in anything, we need to have a sense of ownership and belonging. We need to love what we do.

Like any complex issue, there is no easy solution. A really successful office is a place that serves the need of human beings and business needs at the same time.

And there the challenge – or design opportunity – for the workplace provider lies; in propagating an organically grown culture made up from the diverse nature of the workforce and types of work done, which is also harmonious with the external brand.

The design challenge is to create workplaces that engage employees, allowing for cultures to be created and at the same time allowing users to define the best way for them to achieve their work goals for a company they believe in. These allow for the natural flow of ideas and thoughts, which are what make an organisation grow.

You need to:

  • Define the activities that people actually do and support this with the right spaces and technology, including the physical and psychological needs of the wider working population.
  • Understand and define how the external values of the brand translate into workplace so that employees are engaged emotionally with the values of the organisation.
  • Design spaces so that inhabitants can make them their own. To feel at home, with artefacts that define them and their group.

When designing workspace, focusing on any one of these challenges without the others would be dangerous. It’s a cliché, but a three-pronged strategy is needed. So to build a really effective culture in the workplace, which engages people in the work they do and the organisation they’re part of, a strategic approach is needed. As Peter Drucker may have said, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ – and this is no doubt true. However, a strategic approach to creating spaces to work, to allow culture to evolve, is what makes designing ‘offices’ an interesting place to be these days!