Does culture drive workplace design?

With the Millennials now hitting the workplace countered by an ageing workforce of an estimated third being over 50 by 2020, the average office has never been so diverse.

So it comes as no surprise that the challenge for many senior management and facilities teams is how to create a space for the differing work styles, roles and attitudes that this diversity brings, yet keeping a cohesive vision for the company and creating a culture and a sense of community.

Krishna Money, director at brand agency, Platform, that works with clients to provide workplaces that have their teams at the heart of their space, debated this dilemma at a recent roundtable event hosted by Platform with input from thought leaders from Google, Vodafone UK, Centrica and Expedia amongst others.

Build a workspace that incubates a culture

Step one towards creating a company community is to build a workspace that will effectively incubate a culture. Take Google’s offices that boast beds to rest and workspaces that blur the lines between work and play. Or Expedia’s offices, which Matt Saul, Project Manager at Expedia explained take global threads such as humour and colour but integrate local and quirky design elements such as a deconstructed bike, edam cheese wallpaper and a wall of clogs in their Amsterdam office meeting rooms.

Mirna Gelleni, Senior Capital Projects Manager at Vodafone Group Services collaborated this, highlighting that larger enterprises need to effectively stamp their DNA on an office space, but be flexible enough to realise that as with any offspring, fundamental traits might be different but the whole will work as part of the same family. “There might be different architects commissioned for different buildings, but their brief will be to find a design that includes the DNA of the company”, Gelleni commented.

Incorporate Functionality

It sounds obvious but how many teams have moved into new offices to question the thinking behind the design? Another one of our roundtable guests, a financial institution, illustrated how workspaces need to be dictated by their function, and ultimately the nature of the job in hand. For some regulated institutions this may mean having sufficient private areas to discuss confidential customer activity while also facilitating a more open and collaborative environment for staff. The functionality of a space must suit the nature of the roles of those working within it.

However, sometimes a change in functionality can only be achieved by a shake up of space, a breaking of the psychological barriers associated with a particular work area. Take the call centre. One of the most challenging workspaces to manage, a call centre needs to balance the thin line between the motivation of the team and the efficiencies needed to be produced in the space. It is a telling point that when a large enterprise wanted to change the role of some of their customer centre employees from the day-to-day task of responding to customer queries to assessing best practice, they needed to change the workplace design to facilitate this change. Down came the screens between the customer liaison team and the headset had to be taken away in line with culture change around their role.

Remember one size doesn’t fit all

However, this is often a difficult remit – building an environment that has the required functionality, which reflects the company’s brand values and ethos, but can be tweaked to recreate a sense of familiarity to those working in it. To create a place that fit the individuals within it, without having a “one size fits all” can be the proverbial ‘square peg in the round hole’ dilemma.

What happens to personalisation and flexibility within the workforce? How do forward thinking companies ensure that they are not producing an inflexible space designed for all but only suitable for few? And what about those in the workforce who work remotely, or who only visit infrequently, how do enterprises integrate them into the culture? Matt Saul talked about this exact challenge at Expedia with the installation of temporary desks for those infrequent office workers, “We are introducing hot desks into the offices but we have chosen to do so softly. They are branded with a red adaptor, a red cover for the desk, but ensuring that there is a choice for those who come into the office so rarely they don’t feel like they need a desk. If management is pushing the change, there will be an emotive reaction to it.”

Build a Vision         

James Yates, Senior Property Strategy Manager at Vodafone elaborated on this dilemma by explaining that enterprises need to build a workplace that reflected where the company is going, and to communicate that vision through your workspace while providing a sense of ownership created from that. However, members of the workforce need to be able to take individual ownership over their workspace, a sense of responsibility to make sure the environment is right for them.

Acknowledging that we don’t all work the same way and that the workplace should embrace those different working styles and in fact, this diversity can often support your culture is key. The design needs to be conscious of our differences, be flexible in its approach and fluid in its functions. However, the actual space needs to be practical – to have enough places to sit and to be an environment where the majority, if not the totality can work. It needs to be done in synergy with technology where technology facilitates this fluidity of working, rather than dictating it.

There is a lot more at play in today’s workplace. It is not just about the range of age of the workforce and the consequential traits or trends this might result in. Culture in a workforce is a combination of the physical workspace, which effectively becomes a corporate hub to nurture and envelops the personalities and their emotions of those who work within it. Get this right and the workplace can bring support and inspiration that ultimately will not only boost the team’s careers but also the company’s growth and culture.