COMPANY CULTURE

Do Your Offices Sabotage Your Culture?

Sure, you've got way more important things to worry about than Aeron chairs. But like it or not, your workplace affects your culture.
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I see too many young entrepreneurs spending too much time and energy worrying about their furniture, fixtures, and equipment, way too early. This isn’t the way to grow anything that lasts. You need to rob the train before you spend time splitting up the loot.

At the outset, you need to focus on things that are a lot more significant than color schemes and coffee tables. It’s a lot more important to give people good reasons to come to work than to worry about what the place looks like when they get there.

Alignment ultimately trumps architecture and design. The reason the Aeron chair is so well-known from the dot-com days and such a cliché today isn’t because it’s a beautiful and well-built chair. It’s because these $1,200-plus chairs were the complete embodiment of the excess, self-absorption, and arrogance of the time. Build your palace after you’re profitable.

You want your environment to support and reinforce the culture that you want to embed in your business from the beginning. This isn’t easy to do with scarce resources and limited time, but it’s possible. If your budget is brutal, do a few things well and forget the rest. In the long run, quality and smart choices matter most.

In the last ten years or so, my design partner, Barbara Pollack, and I, have built out over 300,000 square feet of space for various businesses; made as many mistakes as you can; and learned a lot.

The Ten-Second Test

The first impression people have of your business has to be at least favorable, and ideally, fabulous. At Flashpoint, the elevators that go up to our main space are tired, slow and tiny. I always tell guests (as we’re riding up) that they shouldn’t be concerned, because the 70 year-old elevators are the oldest technology they’re going to see at our college.  Once they hit the main lobby upstairs, they’re immediately blown away by the technology, the art and the wide-open spaces. It’s a visceral reaction, and it’s effective 99% of the time. Bankers and accountants are the exceptions. They immediately wonder how much all this amazing stuff cost, and they have no imagination to boot.

The Ultimate Audience(s)

You’re building your workplace primarily for your employees, but it’s critical to remind yourself and your people that virtually every visitor is a crucial part of your audience.

I’m not talking simply about clients, customers, vendors, media, parents, students, business partners, regulators and other employers. I’m talking about everyone. We once saved a deal because our FedEx guy returned (basically on his own) to make a second re-delivery at our offices. When we asked him why he would go out of his way at the end of his day to do that, he said he knew how seriously our receptionist took her job; he knew how important the package was to us; and he wanted to do his part because he loved coming to our offices. He said it was one of the few places he visited where he could feel the energy and enthusiasm when he got off the elevator, and he could just tell that everyone just cared. Culture is contagious, and it starts at the front door.

The Main Message: 3 Key Themes

You need to pick a fairly narrow and focused message that you will be communicating clearly and consistently throughout your space. The worst possible strategy is always the straddle. Go with what makes you proud and put your best foot forward.  At least you’ll know that one person is happy with the result.

The theme you choose will depend on the nature of your business and the phase of its development. There are obviously many different themes, but three of them are common to start-ups and turnarounds. The big three are:

•    Functionality: transformation and change
•    Authenticity: all about work and accountability
•    Aspiration: creative expression, execution and craft

Each of our last three projects presented a different challenge.

Kendall College was a 75-year old failing college in desperate need of a turnaround. Everything about the rebuilding of Kendall had to do with creating a flawless and technically advanced platform for a faculty of chefs to teach successive generations of students in a unique learning environment. Everything in the brand-new facility spoke to precision, professionalism, and minute attention to detail. Those messages formed the heart of a reborn culture of performance and excellence.

Experiencia’s two “worlds” - Exchange City (a collection of operating business in a 20,000 square foot “city”) and Earthworks (4 distinct “natural” environments filled with real animals) - were practical work and learning environments for inner-city 4th and 5th graders, but they couldn’t succeed as pretend places or Disneyesque fantasies.  They needed to be grounded and serious places where the visiting students would achieve new levels of authentic responsibility, and accountability. Watching the students rise to the occasion and seize new opportunities was an unforgettable experience.

And finally, Tribeca Flashpoint Academy’s message to a population of under-appreciated and under-served students--surrounded and encouraged by their true peers for the first time in their lives, and challenged by the newest facilities, technologies and industry tools--was very clear. The sky was the limit. Everything was within their grasp if they made the commitment, had the passion, and did the work. It was all about craft, execution and aspirations. It became a special home for creative expression, collaborative learning, and the next generation of digital leaders.

When the dust settles and the paint dries, you’ll realize that it’s in the building process itself that that your team ultimately comes together. What you build is nowhere near as important as how you go about getting it built. A culture is funny that way. You can try to explain it to people, but you can’t understand it for them. They’ve got to live it to make it real.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Jul 23, 2013

HOWARD TULLMAN | Columnist

Howard Tullman is the CEO of 1871 in Chicago where, at the moment, 260 digital startups are building their businesses every day. He is also the general managing partner of G2T3V, LLC and Chicago High Tech Investors – both early-stage venture funds; a member of Mayor Emanuel’s ChicagoNEXT Innovation Council; and Governor Quinn’s Illinois Innovation Council. He is an adviser to many technology businesses and an adjunct professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management. @tullman

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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