The Cultural and Physical Environment as Drivers of Workplace Design James H.

Thompson, LEED® Director of Design, Interior Architecture Little Diversified Architectural Consulting

Traditionally, architects and designers have worked with clients to develop and implement design solutions from both a functional and an aesthetic approach. The functional approach is justifiable from user needs and activities assessment studies as well as programming data. Aesthetic approaches to the built environment are typically realized through the thoughtful selection of materials, color, pattern and textures. Yet a lingering question exists as to how the cultural environment might be harnessed and shaped by the user and how one, in turn, ‘engages’ space. How one realizes the benefits of effective and thoughtful design through the careful and meaningful creation of the new workplace remains an often elusive, yet important area of exploration.

The Culture Driven Workplace

The cultural environment has a significant impact on the physical workplace and its ability to influence the social relationships of those who work within a space. By definition, a cultural environment is the overall attitude, beliefs, expectations and habits of the workforce. One of the most important facets of workplace culture is the development of social relationships. A 1999 Gallup poll named employee satisfaction and retention, praise and recognition as the top five building blocks of a profitable, productive work environment. Corporations can harness the power of workplace culture by cultivating the individuals who play key cultural catalyst roles in an organization. These individuals need to be formally recognized and rewarded for their actions and sense of personal responsibility for their work environment. Doing so reinvigorates the workplace with a positive focus on personal initiative which becomes not only a self perpetuating marker of the health of workplace morale, but also improves overall employee satisfaction and retention. Aligning a company’s entire organization – the structure, social networks, culture, and human capital – with knowledge workplace principles requires a proactive change management program. As an example, Tivoli Partners, a marketing firm, was looking at the design of their new environment as an opportunity to re-invent their company and create a space that would support it. Towards this goal, the design team worked closely with the company’s leadership and employees to understand where there might be disconnects between the culture of the environment and how employees engaged each other and directed their collective efforts. During

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this process, the team discovered a disconnect in their existing facility between team structures and professional disciplines (creative teams vs. technical teams). The physical environment was such that teams lived and performed their jobs in “cells” (i.e., divisional physical space organization). This disjointed allocation of space was organized around creative teams or highly technical teams, resulting in distinct disconnects between the groups and a level of anxiety related to how they engaged each other – if at all. In communicating with Tivoli Partners, the design team realized the potential of the physical environment to overcome this sense of angst and to leverage group activity within the organization towards a common goal. (See figures 1 and 2.) A knowledge workplace, such as Tivoli Partners, puts value on the diverse experience, creativity and innovation provided by employees. Furthermore, employees need to be united by the unique attributes of their company’s values and goals, belief systems and cultural environment. Companies must first recognize that a people centered culture is a holistic culture. Within organizations, workers are no longer expected to be obsessed with their work. Employees today feel significantly less loyal than those of the previous century because they “own” the company’s means of production – essentially, their knowledge and expertise. Consequently, the actions of a workforce are motivated by their own values and belief systems along with that of the organization. This includes how the group approaches life and work, which values take precedence and under what circumstances, how behavior is situational rather than stereotypical and the best practices that bridge cultures effectively. As outlined above, the power of any organization is its workforce, the people-centered culture that makes it unique and the physical environment that supports it. But it is important that the individual – that employee who brings a level of diversity and uniqueness to an organization – is not overlooked. This same individual profile can be the source for dramatic cultural change that is unexpected, unwanted and, unfortunately, at times unavoidable. Cultural diversity is the uniqueness each employee brings to fulfilling these values and achieving these goals. Diversity covers a broad range of personal attributes and characteristics such as race, gender, age, cultural heritage, personal background and sexual orientation. By recognizing common values and goals, employers are better positioned to create an advantage from employee differences. People whose work is fairly routine and repetitive perform better when they are in a stimulating environment with easy access to other people. Social interaction helps them through days that might otherwise be boring and anonymous. On the other hand, this type of setting is a relative disaster for people whose role requires intense thinking and analytical work for which they have to constantly draw upon their memory and unique, creative thoughts. These people need quiet time, but must eventually re-engage with their community and external stimulation.

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The Physical Environment: Place Making

The relationship between the designed environment and the development of social and cultural networks (the flow of information throughout an organization, tracing how ideas expand, diffuse and turn into innovations and cognitive realization) is complicated yet highlights a unique way of thinking about issues that are of value to organizations. Corporations can begin by determining what is of value to an organization and its workforce and then uncovering what they do and how they do it, what determines quality from their perspective, what differentiates a high quality product from a low quality product, what they want to achieve that they can’t do now, what innovation means to them, and what would it mean to do things differently. Identifying these factors that determine quality and backing into what is known about the physical environment helps determine the final outcome. It is about having the right kind of spaces that actually build upon cognitive, social, psychological, physical and, most importantly, cultural needs. Admittedly, business leaders are skeptical about the psychological, social and cultural impacts on the workplace. When they look at their workforce, they see the quality of their work as determined by ability, effort, motivation and results. What is often overlooked, however, is the power of the environment to shape the overall attitude, beliefs, expectations and habits of a workforce, and in turn, productivity and profitability. In the effort to convince business leaders about the power of thoughtful, well executed designs for the workplace, try not to ask them to make a ‘leap of faith’. Instead, share ‘success stories’ from previous clients and bodies of work with them, and use a series of surveys to measure progress toward specific business goals outlined at the inception of the project. These surveys monitor not only the conviction and attitudes of leadership, individually and collectively, regarding their workforce and the environment, but also the attitudes and beliefs of a workforce. This helps identify disconnects between leadership and the workforce, and potential areas of concern with respect to how social networks might be leveraged for realizing strategic corporate goals. (See figure 3.) Employees are well aware of the power of the physical environment to influence social relationships simply because they are experiencing them daily through the cultural environment. Measurement through simple, articulate surveys and questionnaires is an easy way to gather quantifiable data to substantiate to leadership, objectively and proactively, how space design directly relates back to the people who use it. The synthesis of the cultural and physical environment encompasses a company’s own internal knowledge of strategy and processes, and its ingrained values and business practices. In considering the development of new work space, designers are able to create a design that is an explicit, detailed and ultimately a strategic map for supporting the culture and corporate strategy. Constructing this design/pattern language for an organization (a set of spatial strategies from a broad scale to the highest level of detail) allows a design team to implement a corporate

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strategy and vision for cultural change through the design of the workplace. The discourse between individual needs and collective interests can give birth to a new cultural dimension that enables the individual. A primary objective is to ensure that these individuals feel comfortable within the organizational environment and, therefore, motivated to deliver expected results. The success and outcome of thoroughly knowing and understanding a client and their workforce is seen in how programmatic requirements are married with cultural goals. A strong architectural vocabulary and visual language is at the core of successfully realizing the power of the workplace as an enabler. In a project for Muzak (its home office), one sees the strength of applying urban planning principles to the organization of a very large environment (125,00sf). The thoughtful integration of these principles created a level of clarity regarding how space might be organized around spontaneous company gatherings and how these same spaces can communicate to a prospective client the power of a unified organization. From large scale planning to navigating within such a large facility, deliberate consideration was paid to the choice of materials. Metals, woods, plastics, masonry and other materials are incorporated as wayfinding tools to communicate ‘boroughs’ or neighborhoods within the space. Thoughtful attention was paid to every detail; even the music playing in the parking lot that one hears upon arrival speaks to the total experience that is Muzak and the culture that lives it. (See figures 4, 5, 6 and 7.) The design of Accenture’s Charlotte office, as another example, called for a number of different types of work spaces to accommodate various work styles and needs, one of which was a series of spaces that were highly private and in turn inwardly focused. These spaces allowed for concentrated work and were historically placed away and visually disconnected from the remainder of the work environment. In considering these spaces for their new office, the approach was to make these very private rooms the most dynamic formally and, in turn, the most visible in the office. Clustered in groups of 4 and placed in public spaces where major circulation occurs, these rooms became landmarks within the environment that people move towards and around. What was formerly seen as highly private, tucked away space became the most public, formally recognizable space within the environment while still meeting the functional programmatic needs of Accenture. (See figures 8 and 9.) In the design and development of an organizational culture, pattern language can address several dimensions of size and quantifiable measurements. Employees need a sense of comfort that might be otherwise ambiguous. (That is to say that, spatially, the physical workplace should communicate at many different levels.) The sense of empowerment that is so critical to individual achievement and effectiveness is tied to the myriad of spaces and inherent flexibility of today’s workplace. Evaluation of the orientation of space is necessary to determine if the physical layout is public, private or a mix of both. This extends to the posturing of space as well; the extent to which one sees doors closed versus open and the extent to which employees are protective of their space/territory.

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With the variety of work spaces in many organizations comes a condition that is similarly dependant on the shaping of ‘space’ in relationship to the cultural organization. These spaces resonate with the inherent power borne from process – spaces that allow for and make brainstorming a religion practiced every day – where it weaves itself in to the cultural fabric of an organization. These spaces create the competitive advantage so illusive to many organizations, but one that is dependant and all embracing of the cultural body. When space is attuned with the cultural environment, the insightful observation of the “right people” – those who accomplish what is needed but go beyond and likely do things differently – is encouraged and expected. This passive and active engagement encourages and reinforces both corporate and organization culture, and activates a very integral cultural ‘cross-pollination’. From this, an organization sparks its workforce to think beyond the norm, to naturally take chances and solve problems. A workplace that drives the cultural environment is one that enables individuals while leveraging the collective body of an organization. The best solutions embrace people’s differences. By keeping close to the action and embracing diversity in the workplace, employees are inspired from seeing, hearing and feeling – in effect being there and immersing themselves in the environment. Moving forward with the design of workplaces that directly respond to cultural and physical drivers, ongoing change must be anticipated and speculation to what causes change should be studied. For example, it is critical that the leadership of any organization seeking to consolidate offices and locations understands the underlying factors outside of their immediate control. The fact that businesses compete in an ever more competitive, sophisticated and changing world is proof that consolidation of resources and personnel is more important than ever. The obvious reduction of real estate cost, redundancy of efforts and the like creates an undeniable business case. More importantly, the cultural significance of this as a business strategy is a critical measure of an organization’s success. Workplace design can help a company realize many goals, perhaps the most illusive of which is the social relationship that bears the people-centered cultural environment. Bringing potentially diverse work groups together through consolidation, either through individual work style, education or geography, can be alarming. Relocating an urban presence, for example, to a vastly different geographic location under the same guise and culture as before might be an illusive, if not impossible task. The power of a culture is built upon the diversity of the individuals that make it up, yet the cultural implications of a workplace are more than the drivers that create the design. Organizations can have finite goals, cultural initiatives and facilities to support them, but it is ultimately dependant on the people capable of understanding and embracing their cultural significance. Unforeseen hurdles, such as a rural versus an urban workforce to recruit from, can influence the corporate culture and in turn alter the physical significance and outcome of space. What would otherwise be a powerful, comprehensive and holistic culture can be less than so if an

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organization is not aware of the implications regarding a workplace location and the surrounding demographic from which individuals will be recruited and ultimately comprise the social and cultural fabric of the workforce.


Companies need to be aware of the many factors that come together to ultimately create a workplace culture. Though difficult, the ability to quantify these environmental factors will encourage organizations to consider the ways in which both their cultural and physical workplace is established. A careful and continued observance of these factors will enable designers to move towards the creation of the new workplace. In the design and realization of a client’s environment, designers looking for quantifiable results that help them make judgments about the success and shortcomings of their work. As discussed earlier, solving for programmatic and aesthetic needs has been the compelling driver of architecture and design. By example and by design, one can see how the careful consideration of the workplace aids in the cultural significance of an organization. Though each company has unique needs, the lessons that may be considered are those where a dialogue is established early on with business leaders and the workforce. By aligning the ideology and mindset of any workplace, this can be applied and leverage thoughtful, articulate and knowledgeable experience towards realizing the goals of a workplace that is aligned physically and culturally. Working with and experiencing environments that have embraced this awareness, such as Muzak, Accenture, Tivoli Partners and others, has allowed for the drivers of design – culture and physical space – to be catalysts for fundamental and powerful change in the workforce and, by consequence, a company that is more profitable, competitive and internally aligned in the marketplace.

Bibliography 1. "First Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently" by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, Simon & Schuster, 1999 2. 3. 4. Muzak Thinks Outside the box, By: Barbara Hagenbaugh. USA Today. Friday 06 august 2004. See the Music. By: Amy Milshtein. Contract. June 2001 Workspaces A Look at Where People Work, By: Nancy Holt. The Wall Street Journal. Wednesday, July 25, 2001. 5. The Structure of Pattern Languages, By: Nikos A. Salingaros. Published in arq – Architectural Research Quarterly volume 4 (2000). 6. 7. The Culture Driven Workplace, By: David Week. Assai Changing the Workplace Culture to Reap the Benefits of Good Reliability Programs, William S. Webb and Lee N. Vanden Heuvel

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