A lot of companies are struggling right now with their cultures. Due to high employee turnover, they feel like they are losing ground and don’t know what to do. We spoke with Steelcase’s Dr. Tracy Brower, vice president of workplace insights, to discuss how companies can create positive changes in their culture by thinking intentionally about their spaces and work experiences.

Is there any one culture a company should strive to create?

Culture is specific to a company and its people, but we know four elements make up an effective culture, no matter what. One is strong leadership direction with leaders who can guide, motivate, and inspire us. Another critical element is participation and involvement. People should feel like they’re the authors of their destiny, and their voice matters. The third thing is adaptability. Adaptability to our market, our customers, and our competitors; whatever is going on. And the fourth is consistency: clear policies and practices, clear swim lanes, clear expectations, and ways of working through conflict. Every organization needs those four things together in balance.

4 Elements of Effective Culture:

Strong Leadership | Participation | Adaptability | Consistency

Since space is physical and culture is impalpable, what ties the two together?

There is a great model by Edgar Schein where he talks about how culture is like an iceberg. Under the water’s surface are our shared belief systems, norms, values, and assumptions. You can’t see them, but they’re palpable. The part of the iceberg above the surface of the water is place, and that is the most visible artifact of culture. There is an important connection between place and culture because place sends us cues about how we behave, what we value, and how we want to interact together.

Place sends us cues about how we behave, what we value, and how we interact together.

How does the space itself affect the culture of an organization?

I always like to say that culture is “how things get done around here” or “what people do when no one’s looking.” Space either acts as an enabler or an obstacle to what we want to happen in the culture. For example, we want a culture with strong relationships and respect for each other. But if the place doesn’t give us opportunities to connect, that would act as an obstacle. Or maybe we want a culture of high performance. Having a variety of spaces where different people can work in different ways, or  displays where we can see our results positively contributes to a culture of excellence.

What are some of the main things to consider when intentionally building a space?

It’s beneficial to be explicit about what we want our culture to be, where we are today, what will stretch us, and what is too far afield. We might want a collaborative culture, but we all have private offices and high walls. And so, what we want to do is move to a mix of open and focused areas by transitioning to neighborhoods. Be explicit about what you want your culture to be. Then create a space that supports it.

When creating an office that supports culture, how much should you ask employees for their opinion?

It is important to get employees’ opinions and ask them how they work rather than what they want. They may not know different work options, but they always know how they work. I am also a big advocate of pilots. Give people something to work in for a while and then get their feedback on the actual experience versus a hypothetical survey.

How can companies use space to make employees feel comfortable, valued, creative, and part of a community?

It is crucial to give lots of variety. Support all five work modes, collaborate, focus, learn, rejuvenate and socialize because everybody works differently. Serving all those work modes sends a message that the company values employees no matter what kind of work they do.

Support all five work modes:

Collaborate | Focus | Learn | Rejuvenate | Socialize

Is there any space that companies should focus on more than others?

Neighborhoods. These are places where you can be with your pople and feel a sense of belonging. They give us flexibility for when a lot of people are in the officer or fewer people are there. They also provide a sense of predictability and territory which contribute to a great experience for people. And in neighborhoods, we can have places for both collaborative work and focused work. So, neighborhoods are a great place to focus our energies.

Tracey Hybrid Neighborhood Webinar
Dr. Tracy Brower

Dr. Tracy Brower is a PhD sociologist studying work-life fulfillment and happiness. She is the vice president of workplace insights for Steelcase. In addition, she is the author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life, as well as a contributor to Forbes.com and Fast Company.

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