During my research on creative workspace design, I visited plenty of companies and observed their workspaces. One particular example was a global software company. They invested millions of Dollars into remodeling their headquarter’s workspace. The space looked amazing: inviting open structures, very high-quality collaboration furniture, casual lounge areas, and lots of greenery and plants.
When I interviewed the person in charge of this renovation process, he told me that the employees didn’t embrace this new workspace design as he had expected. On the contrary, they hated it.
What has happened? The new workspace design simply did not match to the organizational culture. People were used to their individual offices that they could decorative with their own plants and family pictures. Moreover, there was no need for lots of collaboration. Instead, people were working on individual tasks or had a lot of client contact via phone calls. The new open office structure was just not the right choice for their individual work modes, and the overall organizational culture.
To prevent you from making the same mistake, I summarized the most important insights about organizational culture and the required workspaces in this blogpost. Make sure to read until the end, where I will also present you with a simple tool to assess your own workspace with regards to your organizational (or personal) culture.
#1: What is Organizational Culture?
First, let’s take a look at culture in general. In traditional cultural studies and anthropology, culture is defined as a collection of shared values, behaviors, and beliefs. These can be expressed through cultural artifacts, such as tools and objects of everyday life, but also as language (texts), music, and pieces of art. Members of a group express their culture through such artifacts, and vice-versa, archaeologists can infer insights about the cultural values, behaviors, and attitudes from found ancient objects.
In a similar vein, organizational culture represents a set of values, behaviors, and attitudes of an organization. Also this culture can be expressed through artifacts, more specifically the work environment. Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn, both professors of Management and Organizations, developed a useful framework of organizational culture, called the Competing Values Framework that defines four types of organizational culture.
#2: Four Types of Organizational Culture
The “Competing Values Framework”, pictured below, distinguishes two dimensions of an organization:
- Internal vs. external focus: defines whether an organization is focusing on internal relationships (among the employees) or on outward relations, for example, clients or the market in general.
- Flexibility vs. stability focus: refers to the degree of how fast and easily an organization can adapt to changes.
- Collaborate Culture.
The first category represents an organization that is characterized by flexibility and an internal focus. The Collaborate culture aims at “doing things together”. Their focus is on human relations and collaboration, with everyone working towards shared goals. Often, these organizations are some sort of family-business. Their idol takes the role of a coach or mentor.
- Explore Culture.
The second category represents an organization that is characterized by flexibility and an external focus. The Explore culture aims at “doing new things”. These organizations focus on developing ideas with an appreciation of experimenting and risk-taking. Their idol is an entrepreneur or a visionary.
- Organize Culture.
The third category represents an organization that is characterized by stability and an internal focus. The Organize culture aims at “doing things right”. They prefer well-defined processes and a clear distribution of tasks. They strive for quality and excellence and show respect for power and hierarchies. Their idol is an expert or problem-solver.
- Achieve Culture.
The fourth category represents an organization that is characterized by stability and an external focus. The Achieve culture aims at “doing things fast”. These organizations focus on scaling ideas and bringing ideas to the market. Their idol is a salesperson or a maker.
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#3: How do these Types Relate to the Workspace?
Now you might ask how a specific corporate culture might be reflected in the workspace design. In the image above I show what a typical workspace for each culture type might look like.
Of course, these are only schematic categories. In the next sections, I will describe the spatial characteristics of each culture type in more detail, but beware not to take them too literally. These are meant as stereotypes that may not always be as distinct. But it might help to understand the specific values of an organization and how this might be reflected in their workspace. Also, I would like to point out that each spatial setting has its benefits and also its potential problems, as I will illustrate below.
The Collaborate culture sets high value on relationships among coworkers. In order to facilitate collaboration and social interaction, they often favor open plan office structures with lots of meeting opportunities. Moreover, you can find lounge areas, casual meeting spots, shared desks, and coffee corners in these types of organizations.
Decisions are taken together, which is why there are many meeting areas for the many meetings. Collaboration boards and writable walls are used to share ideas and for dot-voting on ideas.
However, from time to time the creative mind also needs time and place for contemplation and focused thinking—alone. Too much open space and collaboration areas may lead to distraction and a raised noise level.
Studies show that despite common belief, an open office environment is actually increasing stress and decreasing creativity and productivity; and in the long run it may even lead to reduced social interactions. Moreover, a consensus-oriented decision process can also slow things down or result in mediocre solutions that represent the lowest common denominator. Sometimes it may be better for the innovation process to take a decision on one extreme (and maybe not overly popular) idea.
The Explore culture is characterized by experimentation and playfulness. People are always in search for new ideas. Inspirational materials, tools, and research insights are visible in the workspace which can lead to a mild degree of creative chaos. You may find typical design thinking spaces with whiteboards on wheels, standing tables, tinker areas, as well as games and toys for inspiration. Typically, these office spaces are very colorful and integrate modern or even “fancy” furniture. Tinkering is encouraged and, hence, prototyping is often performed right at the desk. The playful interior triggers people to take risks and experiment.
On the other hand, the playful and slightly chaotic atmosphere can also lead to noise and mess in the workspace. In the worst case, the fun environment leads to a lack in quality and depth of developed ideas and solutions. Fancy furniture like beanbags and swings may express the exploratory nature of the company, but they are not always very practical.
At first sight, organizations that represent an Organize culture may seem more traditional and hierarchical than the other types. Their high appreciation of excellence and quality can also be reflected in the workspace. The office is often very well maintained because a facilitator is there to keep the place in order, refill the coffee, and water the plants. You will always find the right tools at the right place. Furniture is typically expensive, of high quality, and very functional.
The focus on precisely defined processes and a clear distribution of tasks and responsibilities might be facilitated through visually structured work zones. Signs and labels may indicate what task to perform where. Sometimes the work ethic and creative mindset are displayed as posters to trigger certain behaviors. For example, spaces with names and creative mission statements might prime people into creative mindsets.
On the downside, these types of organizations do not foster much individual experimentation. People may tend to follow instructions and adhere to a predefined process. And the quality of the furniture might hinder people to experiment and create a mess.
And finally, the Achieve culture is very market-oriented. The focus is not so much on developing new ideas, but rather on bringing an existing idea to the market and scaling it. As a consequence, the workspace does not need to facilitate lots of collaboration. Small, individual offices are the majority and temporary meeting rooms can be booked, if needed. And a professional workshop allows high-end prototyping, but it’s located in the basement to avoid distractions.
Often, these organizations have a welcome area to welcome visitors and clients. For those clients there are also representative showrooms that display success stories and finalized products in showcases. These examples can also act as motivational triggers for the employees themselves.
However, these facilities sometimes lack an individual creative flavor. People work mainly individually, which might lead to a lack of creative collaboration. Experimentation is sometimes not much encouraged through the space.
Traditional and successful organizations could implement more experimental and playful workspaces in order to stay agile and flexible instead of relying solely on past successes.
#4: What's the Bottomline?
Most often, a company cannot be categorized purely as one of these four culture types. Instead, it is usually a combination of different types. Maybe one type is dominant, but others will most likely blend in somehow.
Furthermore, culture and workspace are somehow connected like the chicken-and-egg problem. What is there first… the culture or the workspace? And what influences what? Well, there are two possibilities:
1. Culture is reflected in the workspace
The workspace is an expression of the organizational culture. It reflects work modes (individual vs. collaborative, experimental vs. perfectionist), and it “reacts” to people’s behavior. If the company’s culture is exploratory the space is shaped by people working in an experimental way; if the culture is more organized, the space will be shaped by more careful behaviors and facilitation. The workspace signals the respective corporate culture also to the outside world. In that sense, workspace design can become a marketing factor. Nowadays, many creative people expect a specific “creative” work environment and they might even base their decision for or against a potential employer on the workspace design offered.
2. The workspace shapes organizational culture
On the other hand, the workspace design can also influence and, hence, shape behavior and attitudes of people. A lounge area with sofas and a coffee station invites socializing. Team furniture, including whiteboards and standing tables, invite collaboration and sharing of ideas. And a rough and cheap interior invites quick prototyping and experimentation. The space guides workflows and hinders specific activities. You simply cannot do a design thinking workshop in a cubicle.
In their book “Change your Space, Change your Culture”, Rex Miller, Mabel Casey, and Mark Konchar present insightful perspectives on how one influences the other. In a nutshell, they suggest that changing the workspace is actually the fastest and easiest way to change a company’s culture. Want to find out how? Here’s the book: Buy at Hugendubel* or buy on Amazon*
* This is an affiliate link. If you buy through this link I will get a small commission at no extra cost for you.
In my opinion, the workspace is a reflection of the organizational culture, but it can also influence and shape it. But, I think it is not possible to pretend or even “fake” a specific culture if it is not really “lived” in the organization. Culture and workspace need to be somehow aligned. It will not help much to install collaboration furniture if the organization is actually creating competition among employees by awarding individual achievements. And the fancy napping zones might look cool, but if people do not dare to actually use them because napping is not tolerated by the organizational culture, then there’s no point.
#5: Actionable Advice
If the workplace does not reflect and support the organizational culture, employees might feel uncomfortable, uninspired, and disloyal. In order to avoid this situation, you should check whether your workspace and culture actually match.
The simple, five-step guideline includes 16 questions that will reveal if your workspace is designed well in alignment with your corporate culture. You can download the Self-Assessment Guide as a 3-page PDF, for free.
In order to initiate a culture change process, you need to embrace three mindsets.
- Understand your existing culture. A thorough and common understanding of your values, behaviors, and beliefs is crucial to be able to design a matching workspace. In this process, it is also important to compare the company’s (published) mission statement with the employees’ view.
- Involve people from all stakeholders in the design process. This is not a top-down decision but it needs to be developed in collaboration with the people who are supposed to work in that space.
- Consider a change in both directions: You may want to adjust the workspace design to better reflect the organizational culture, or vice-versa, you may need to reconsider your organizational culture.
The workspace can only be of support if it is in alignment with the actual culture of the organization.
If you want to see an inspiring office space with a touch of culture, check out my studio portrait of SAP’s AppHaus.