Traditional values, modern office? Workplace design as a reflection of corporate culture

The world of work is changing. Increasing digitalization makes it possible to work from anywhere in the world. The boundaries between the real and virtual worlds have become blurry. Team collaboration across national and even continental borders are increasingly common. In addition, our work environment is characterized by unprecedented flexibility. Traditional hierarchies, organizational structures, and workflows are becoming more porous or disappear altogether. Agile work replaces rigid project plans. Job sharing, flexible work schedules, and home offices require entirely new decision-making and communication structures. This begs the question: What will the workplace of the future look like? And what role will corporate culture play? First things first: A fancy new sofa in corporate colours and a footsball table are not enough.

Corporate culture takes place in the office

Corporate culture refers to the behaviour, language, philosophy and soul of a company - and it needs a physical space to be visible and tangible for both employees and externals. The values a company stands for and the goals it pursues are ideally represented and passed on by its employees. In other words, they live and shape corporate culture.

This is less successful digitally or in changing locations. Recent years have shown that processes such as onboarding, for example, or making new contacts are much more difficult exclusively online. In the office, however, corporate culture can be experienced up close. It is only in encounters with the team, from small talk at the coffee machine to executive meetings, that a sense of belonging emerges, which shapes corporate culture and helps to create identity.

Workplace design needs corporate culture

Thus, the office space should not only serve the tasks performed there, but also reflect the company's values. Workplace design not only reflects a company's culture, but it can also actively shape it. For example, a Harvard Business Review study* found that two Fortune 500 companies that switched from cellular offices to open-plan offices saw a 70 percent reduction in face-to-face interactions at work. A change in office design was enough to change the way employees communicated with each other.

Admittedly, not every rearrangement of chairs has such a dramatic impact on corporate culture. However, every aspect of workplace design contributes to people’s overall well-being, which in turn can influence culture. If its office design is consistent with the values a company wants to promote, its workplace design can help reinforce those values. In addition, the design of office spaces and individual workstations has a significant impact on employee well-being and satisfaction, which in turn has a positive impact on business productivity. However, if its workplace design is not aligned with the company's culture, it can lead the company in the wrong direction.

Workplace design requires participation

That is why employee involvement is essential. As we all know, changes are best implemented when they are communicated early and everyone is on board. Therefore, it is not enough to inform employees about a new workplace concept by email or an intranet post. Employee involvement, transparency and feedback loops, and also freedom of choice in their workplace design are equally important. Companies should ask themselves what their employees want and what advantages their office space offers over a home office, so that employees make a conscious choice for the company office.

New workplace concepts and new ways to collaborate

Employees' needs are never uniform: Some thrive in vibrant, open offices with many colleagues, while others prefer a quiet, focused work environment. Again, it is important to understand what employees and managers find most conducive to their performance and productivity.

Redefining the work environment then also means agreeing on new rules of collaboration, such as switching mobile phones to vibrate mode or moving loud conversations to meeting rooms. It is often these minor changes that have a significant impact on the work atmosphere and employee motivation.

New work requires new work environments

With the introduction of innovative concepts such as New Work, employees gain more flexibility in organizing their workday. This also means more self-organization: deciding when, where, how and with whom to work. Finding a common structure requires mutual agreement and is primarily the responsibility of each employee. The communication culture also plays a crucial role in this: How and by what means do employees communicate with each other? Employers can support them by supplying specific meeting places - not only exchange formats such as Zoom, but also separate places in the office, such as an open tea kitchen or a lounge area.

The ages old design rule of "form follows function" also applies to workplace design. As communication and organizational structures change, the physical conditions of the workplace need to adapt. For example, communication and transparency do not work if the management stay among themselves on their executive floor, isolating themselves in their corner office with two windows and an anteroom, separated from their employees. For open-door communication to really work, executives need to be accessible.

Workplace design: Comfort over standardization

There is no one-size-fits-all blueprint for perfect workplace design. The office space should be as individual as the company and its employees.

The goal of workplace design is to create spaces that reflect the company's values and where employees and potential customers feel comfortable and in good hands. Do the available spaces meet all communication needs - informal, discreet, small or large meetings? Are special creative work areas needed? Then comes the design: light, colour and contrast, plants, furniture, acoustics, selected materials and fabrics. A successful workplace concept integrates all these aspects and contributes to identification with the company. Ultimately, it also influences the external perception of the company - ideally with its employees as convincing brand ambassadors.

Corporate culture becomes tangible in the office

Be it traditional, modern, innovative or reliable: A company's values come to life when they are reflected in our actions and decisions. This, in turn, becomes tangible when there is a place where employees can interact and experience the "how". For the office to unleash this power, individual workplace concepts must consider the uniqueness of the company and meet the needs of its team members.

The Truth About Open Offices, In: Harvard Business Review; 2019