What your office tells you about your company’s culture

Your space sends a message—and shapes your culture.
Your space sends a message—and shapes your culture.
Image: REUTERS/Noah Berger
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The next time you get into the office, take a good look around. What are the characteristics of your space? How does it make you feel you should behave? Who do you think it was built for? What kind of activities do you think it was designed to support?

Like it or not, workspace design betrays a company’s culture. It also has the power to shape it. We are highly sensitive to the behavioral cues embedded in our environments and will unthinkingly adjust our speech, mannerisms, and body language as we adapt to our surroundings.

The chances are, you’re still working in an office designed—consciously or not—to support an idea of work that came into its heyday about one hundred years ago.

As early 20th-century companies harnessed burgeoning transportation and telecommunications networks to grow into new markets, administrative work—and offices that accommodated it—exploded. The skylines of New York and Chicago were transformed as sleek skyscrapers sprung up, filling with typists, accountants, mail-order departments and a supervisory managerial class relentlessly focused on improving the production of paperwork. The salient features of these white-collar factories? Glass-walled offices for the executives (employees worked harder if they knew they were being watched), desks arranged to isolate the individual and the rote work they performed, and a fetish for uniformity that put a powerful spotlight on the primary mission: operating efficiency.

These core design principles have endured with remarkable tenacity, vanquishing or co-opting several bold attempts to displace them. In 1964, a Herman Miller designer named Robert Propst launched the “action office,” a modular, semi-enclosed office furniture whose humanistic design emphasized ergonomics, flexibility and creativity. To his horror, Mr Propst’s creation metastasized in offices everywhere as the cubicle—the ultimate symbol of atomized and soulless office existence. “The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity,” the poor man would later comment.

What might our workspaces look like if we did design them to support the kind of work today’s economy requires? What if we went beyond mimicking generic notions of startup culture (or even buying it from WeWork) and designed workspace for ourselves and our companies that’s both fit for purpose and authentic? Here is what we’ve learned over a decade of building and rebuilding spaces that support the innovation imperatives of today’s economy.

Start with the most foundational team pattern: a shared table

Almost all offices continue to be designed to support an idea of work which puts the individual at the center. We believe this needs to change: the fundamental unit of production in the knowledge economy is the team. There is abundant evidence that humans learn best in teams, and that the strongest teams combine diverse individuals with different skills and backgrounds. The team’s space is their home base. It should foster a sense of team territory and belonging, and play a key role in orienting the individual to the team identity.

If the team is how knowledge gets created, the team’s space is where their knowledge is located. Make all surfaces writable: walls, space dividers and even tabletops. Customer-oriented teams surround themselves with the daily rituals of their customers. Creative teams saturate their spaces with inspiration. Productive teams use space to visualize workflow.

Provide private space for quiet contemplation, reflection and—for the introverts on the team—a place to recharge 

While open-plan team space should be the default design, it creates too much noise and disruption for effective individual work, which will continue to play a supporting role in how work is performed.

Add a seated area for two or three apart from the team 

New ideas and new directions spring from serendipitous encounters and ad hoc conversations. Great teams also call out their conflicts and need space to work through them.

Make all the furniture moveable—desks, chairs, seating areas and space dividers

Creativity is an iterative process, and creative spaces should be too. Also, your teams will need plenty of autonomy. Moveable furniture supports reconfigurable space—a great way to signal permission to act. Better still, have the teams build their space themselves. It will set the right tone from the start.

Get rid of those glass-walled executive offices, and any supervisor types that still lurk within them

Learning teams are self-managing. They need coaches who are also players, and who sit around the table with them. Space that signals hierarchy is space that destroys initiative and the appetite for failure that is the only route to deeper learning.

(We do understand this can be a hard habit to kick. One organization we have worked with got rid of its executive offices only to assign each of its vice presidents a permanent conference room, with their name and title embossed on the door.)

Pay attention to the overall flow of your space and which teams to group together

Poor choices may have far-reaching consequences. One product manager at a company we have worked with laments his office’s “bad Bauhaus design with four rectangular tubes that, like resistors in a chip, block the flow of energy and creativity that our ‘hive’ work really demands. The walls are clearly evident in the customer experience!”

Don’t overreach

Workspace design is not a silver bullet. It takes time to adjust behaviors and expectations. Abrupt shifts may strike employees as inauthentic, or simply unusable. We recently visited the innovation studio of a marquee financial company. The space was covered with instructions for employees to be creative and so on. It was also empty. We found the teams huddled in the conference rooms around the perimeter, as if they were taking shelter from carnivorous executives prowling the open veldt.

Look to your company’s past and present to build a bridge to the future. We learned this at IBM, where we opened an innovation lab in New York. We had been looking at loft and warehouse space in Chelsea and Lower Manhattan and were disappointed when IBM’s facilities department let us know they had found us an empty floor at 590 Madison Ave, a vertical cubicle farm in midtown Manhattan. It turned out to be an inspired choice. The lab design blended old and new into an energizing hybrid that all IBMers could experience as an authentic expression of what the company wanted to become.

There is much more you can and should do. But following these simple principles will get you off to a great start. If you’re the boss, make workspace and how your teams use it the primary measure of your progress towards building a culture and an organization that can thrive in a knowledge economy. Tear down the posters advertising those values you don’t yet possess and start a space project that truly encourages and supports the culture you need.

And if you’ve built an innovation studio and find your employees hiding in the closets? We recommend you take a long look in the mirror.

This article is part of a Quartz at Work series that explores new patterns of work.