How does your organization convey its' culture? Most communicate culture via actions and words. Of course, we know these can convey positive or negative aspects of our culture, so we are naturally careful about what we say and what we do. But have you considered how your culture is communicated in the way you use your office space?

I've been interviewing hundreds of business leaders about culture and a few have said some interesting things about how the spaces where we work can communicate our workplace culture. Sometimes this communication is unintentional, but today, more companies are taking seriously how they communicate workplace culture through their office spaces.

What can we learn about culture from today's office spaces?

The No-Office Office

When determining how to convey what matters to your organization in the space where you work, consider whether an office even makes sense in the context of your culture. More workers today work remotely or in non-traditional roles that don't require a suite full of offices to accommodate them. In industries like food service or retail, it may make sense to dispense with the office entirely. But what does dispensing with the traditional office do to your culture?

Dan Simons, co-owner of Founding Farmers, the most booked restaurant in the US on OpenTable and most geo-tagged restaurant in DC on Instagram, says their restaurants are their offices. "That's where all the action is. It's pretty cool to be sitting at one of our tables at Founding Farmers having a meeting and looking over Pennsylvania Avenue just a few blocks from the White House," says Simons.

Another advantage? "Our meetings also come loaded with our delicious scratch-made food, which keeps us all going strong, and afterwards, the bonus is we don't have to leave for happy hour. The bar and our tasty craft cocktails are right there. All of this definitely makes for a great work environment."

Don't rely too heavily on remote working arrangements if you want a strong culture, however. Visibility - ensuring that employees have ample opportunities to share the same space and work through problems together - is also essential. David Heacock, CEO at FilterBuy says, "visibility within companies is crucial. Shared experiences are necessary for a strong business and further development. Companies should always improve their visibility, but also define boundaries, brand the space and bring life to the existing workplace."

Creative Spaces for Creative Cultures

If the super-mod spaces on Mad Men had any relation to the reality of working in a creative field, they demonstrated that office design has always been important to companies that wanted to convey a culture of cool. What's changed since the Mad Men era is that today's creative cultures aren't just about what looks good. They're built for the communication and collaboration that's needed today's fast-paced, constantly changing environment.

So how do you use your office space to create a spirit of collaboration in your culture? Start by looking at new ways of communicating who's who in the organization and including new hires in traditions of the culture. Says Dan Hermann, CEO of Paint Nite, "Instead of the traditional "org chart," we give each new hire a mini canvas so they can paint, paste or draw their name and create whatever else they want to tell us about who they are and what they do. We hang these up on a huge wall that we have in the middle of our office that's organized by department."

Also consider the effect of the space itself on employee and customer health, especially if your company culture values sustainability or wellness. Simons also points to how Founding Farmers' commitment to sustainability is reflected in they way they build and run their restaurants. Each restaurant location is LEED certified as 3-star Certified Green with a real commitment to family farmers.

"Not only are we creating healthier environments for everyone who walks through our doors by using less toxic paint and carpeting," says Simons, "we are also showing everyone who works with us that it is possible to care about the planet, the land and air we breathe, the source of our food and how we prepare it, AND still be successful."

Start Small and Think Big

In the early 2000s, the startup world was littered with stories of companies that went big and went out of business. They grew as fast as possible - regardless of what that meant for their profitability or culture - in order to attract maximum attention for an IPO or a buy-out offer. This strategy might have meant big money for owners and executives, but too often, it resulted in pink slips for employees and ideas that never quite came to fruition.

As more organizations begin to journey towards purpose, this kind of business strategy seems outdated. If you really want to set your company apart and build something that lasts, you might be better served to think small.

Says Yaniv Masjedi, CMO of Nextiva, a business communications company, "We're in a market that praises venture capital funding, where having an 'exit strategy' is glorified and considered a win. But we don't view the world that way. We started out very small with a goal of providing service at a level that our biggest competitors couldn't beat."

To do that, Nextiva focused on culture. "Our purpose is to help companies communicate better. We started out in an office the size of a minivan, with a goal of answering the phone within the first three rings. We still do that today. To be able to do this we knew we needed a great team, and a great team requires a great culture. We hired smart team players who are willing to go the extra mile, nurtured that talent from within, and created a fun environment where we're mindful - we encourage employees to use the Headspace app - as well as playful - we host numerous team events throughout the year. We started out with an amazing culture and thankfully we've kept it that way as we've grown."

If you want an office space that expresses the culture you're trying to build, think creatively about how your office space is both a home for your company culture, as well as a driver of it. Focusing on culture elements that your company values, such as visibility, sustainability, or even proximity to your customers, will encourage your team to do their best work, while building better relationships with one another and with customers.

Published on: Jul 6, 2017