A strong organization is always looking for ways to improve company culture. Workplace design is one tool that can directly impact company culture, as well as productivity and innovation.
To explore this topic, I interviewed workplace design expert David Craig, SVP of CannonDesign New York and head of CannonDesign’s global Workplace Strategy Practice. In this three part series, I will share Craig’s insight into workplace design as it impacts culture, innovation and knowledge-based productivity.
To get started, here is a video interview I did with David Craig, where I ask him one question about each topic covered in this workplace design series. First, we discuss three workplace “must haves” to impact company culture. Then, David names three quick ways for organizations to ramp up innovation with workplace design adjustments. Lastly, we end the interview wondering how workplace designs vary region to region.
Now, let’s get into specifics about the effect of workplace design on company culture.
Anne Loehr: I understand that you have developed metrics to measure the impact workplaces have on culture, innovation and knowledge-worker productivity. Can you talk about the metrics?
David Craig: Our goal, when we engage an organization and study them, is to learn about and quantify how they work and try to figure out how they could work more effectively. We don’t have an overall metric for productivity, but we do have indicators, like the strength of connections between people, the radius of connections, and the speed and frequency of interactions. We also try to measure the consequences of bad communication habits, like the lag time between seeking information and getting it, or the ratio of the time spent coordinating meetings versus actually interacting. We do something similar for individual work, looking at, for example, time lost to various forms of distractions. Innovation and culture are a little harder, but again we have indicators, like the strength of social networks and sharing patterns for innovation, and the gap between personal values and what people think their organization values for culture. There’s no magic formula that translates these metrics into solutions, but they can be very useful in highlighting the limitations of existing work patterns and quantifying performance gaps, which are often tied to the environment.
Anne Loehr: I read in your article in HBR, Vision Statement: High Performance Office Space, that cubicles are open enough to let noise and distraction in, yet not open enough to allow for open communication. What are some ways cubicles influence company culture?
David Craig: There are a few things that we often see with cubicles. Analogous to the way they limit sight lines, cubicles tend to make people feel that their organization is itself opaque, meaning that it’s not transparent about what it’s doing. That comes from having limited awareness of activities around you and a limited range of contacts, and like any cultural attribute, opaqueness can get echoed in individual behaviors in the form of information hoarding and competition. Cubicles can also inhibit a sense of group membership, which can limit engagement. Work, simply put, loses its social value to the degree that people are unaware of the social group they’re working in. Lastly, cubicles tend to reinforce hierarchy, partly because of the emphasis on personal territory but more because it tends to make interactions with management more formal. There’s simply less common ground between individuals in most cubicle environments.
While not a cultural issue per se, cubicles have a strong impact on how people communicate. Specifically, they encourage people to use email and messaging more than they would otherwise. There’s a psychological barrier to getting up and talking to someone a few aisles away if you can’t see them and verify that they’re there. People don’t want to walk over just to find that no one’s there, so they fall back on electronic communication.
Whether these are real negatives depends on how important these cultural traits and behaviors are and whether the people around you are people you actually identify with or work with. Culture can also be driven by other factors like strong leadership, counteracting, to a degree, environmental factors.
Anne Loehr: How might an open plan workspace influence the company culture?
David Craig: Whereas cubicle environments tend to be fairly consistent, the impact of open plan environments on culture depends on a lot on the specific environment and the nature of the work an organization does. In many cases, though, more openness makes communication more efficient and frequent, and it can foster the perception that the organization itself is open and transparent. Openness often also fosters group identity, socialization and engagement. In other cases, though, when openness is not well conceived or justified, it can lead to loss of individual status and identity, and it can even reduce face-to-face communication because people feel too exposed and self-conscious.
Anne Loehr: From what I’ve read of your ideas, it seems that a combination of areas and rooms in a workplace is beneficial. What would be three key areas to include at the workplace in regard to company culture?
David Craig: How a workplace should influence culture will, of course, depend on what your cultural aspirations are, but there are a few things that will help an organization foster their culture, whatever it may be. First, since culture is based on shared experience, there needs to be some visibility into what people are doing. That might mean use of glass, good sites lines or simply openness. Second, the areas of the workplace that teams or departments occupy together need to be well defined so that people feel a sense of membership. Culture doesn’t work well if people don’t feel integral to it. Third, there needs to be common ground – like a common social hub – that connects all different parts of the organization and helps integrate the culture.
The challenge is making the latter two things – the well-defined group areas and the common ground between them – active and meaningful. If your common ground is the hallway that leads to the parking deck, you may be in trouble. And if you’re using openness to promote awareness, it’s also important that people have places they can take private or noisy activities to, or simply escape to. Otherwise the shared experience can generate friction and become overwhelming.
Anne Loehr: Do you have an example of an office environment where the company culture was greatly enhanced by the design of the space?
David Craig: The most common examples have to do with shifting towards more innovative and/or less hierarchical cultures. In our own new Chicago office, we made an effort to make collaboration more visible, in part by painting the walls and columns in common areas and circulation spaces along our team neighborhoods with whiteboard paint. Ideas are much more on display as a result. To me it’s inspiring, and after six months people were much more likely to describe the organization as one that was open to experimentation rather than one that did things by the book. In another organization – a consumer products company – that moved to a more open and flexible environment, the sense of hierarchy was greatly reduced. Senior leaders who no longer had offices said they no longer had people come to their office for every interaction. They started to calibrate where and how they met – e.g., in café versus in a meeting room versus at a desk – to better suit the kind of interaction they were having.
Anne Loehr: When it comes to the different generations, is there a difference in the most beneficial workplace design to enhance company culture?
David Craig: There are no hard and fast rules. We see senior employees, for example, taking quickly to very progressive changes in some cases. But we do see patterns. Millennials are somewhat more interested in having flexibility within the building while Gen Xers are somewhat more interested in having flexibility outside the building (i.e., the ability to work from home). We also see Millennials being somewhat more interested than older workers in things like corporate sports and other social activities. All of this probably has more to do with life changes – growing and waning family activities and obligations outside of work – than the era someone was raised in.
Stay tuned for next week where I will interview David Craig about workplace design impact on innovation. He will give some great insights into ideal environments for creativity, the effect of open workspaces on collaboration, and how workplace design can enhance creativity for all generations.
Can you think of a time where the design of your workplace just didn’t fit with the organizational culture? How about a workplace design that enhanced the culture? I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment below, send me a tweet, or email me.