Benjamin Voyer: What Corporate Culture for the office of the future?
CORPORATE CULTURES DICTATE WORKPLACES AND SPACES, AND THE BEST ARE SEEN AS DRIVERS FOR INNOVATION AND PRODUCTIVITY, BUT ONE SIZE DOES NOT NECESSARY FIT ALL, EXPLAINS BENJAMIN G. VOYER, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR & ACADEMIC DIRECTOR, ESCP EUROPE
Office space regulates interactions between individuals, allowing employees to meet and interact and share information more or less easily, work anonymously or under the direct control of their supervisors or peers, promoting a sense of community or competition. The way companies design their workspaces can change how frequently their employees meet, or where (in the break-out room, a cafeteria, or a corridor, (for example). Designing innovative office space is important, and can be instrumental to work performance. Yet, office space and layout only explains part of performance at work. The organizational culture interacts with office space design. Thinking about the office space of the future therefore requires considering the role and nature of the organizational culture in which employees evolve.
Organizational culture is commonly defined as the way things are done in a particular organization or institution. Organizations can choose to reach similar goals in very different ways, fostering different types of cultures. For instance, achieving high employee productivity can be obtained through rigorous continuous monitoring of performance, combined with financial incentives, as is often the case in the finance industry. Or it can be obtained by giving employees flexibility, such as flexible working hours or the ability to work from home.
For companies, it can be tempting to try to change an organizational culture, or to import best practices from other organizations. Hiring a new CEO, for instance, often leads to a “change of culture”, which can be accompanied by office space redesign. Some corporate cultures are also iconic in the way they break existing corporate cultural norms, while offering new space design. Corporate cultures in start-ups are often about promoting a fun, laissez-faire type of culture at work, in which employees are given opportunities to relax the way they want – with nap rooms, game rooms, etc. – and are allowed to devote part of their work time to external personal or clarity projects (for example, the ’20 Percent Time’ policy at Google). This type of culture is thought to foster, with an adequate office space design, increased productivity. When thinking about importing such types of best practice, however, companies should take into consideration three elements. First, corporate cultures need to match employee’s personalities, and local cultural practices. Walmart found itself in a difficult position in Germany when it tried to enforce a corporate culture that was perceived as too American, and not adapted to a European context, for instance banning romantic relationships inside the organization. Second, changes in organizational cultures lead to employee adaptations, which in turn can diminish the efficiency of imported practices. Third, importing elements from another culture into an existing strong existing culture can lead to potential culture conflicts between promoters of the former and the new culture.
Overall, in order to make sure the office of the future contributes to organizational performance, managers need to understand how office space will interact with existing corporate cultures, and facilitate or not the adoption of best practices. In addition, organizational cultures, as well as office spaces, have to be shaped with employees’ personalities in mind. While the start-ip way of doing things might work very well for young employees, it might not necessarily for older individuals, or employees coming from very different cultures (e.g. bankers). Finally, what worked in the past does not always work in the future – too often, imported ‘best practices’ work in the short term because of a novelty effect, which gradually decreases in the few months following its adoption.