In the 1980’s the American management professor Edgar Schein developed an organisational model to make culture more visible within a company. He highlighted the importance of artefacts and symbols that colour the appearance of the organisation. Visible elements such as logos, architecture, structure, processes and corporate clothing. Recognisable both to staff and to external parties.
In the modern business world, workplace design is largely influenced by architects. The best of these understand the impact of the visual upon the behaviours of staff. Interior designers also take a hand, but in my experience their personal creative tastes come too much into play. This may be what you need if you are at loss to decorate your own home; but it’s hardly business-like.
The biggest culprit in inappropriate workspace design tends to be the business owner. They often lack objectivity, and many use the opportunity to enhance their self-image. Some espouse ethnic art and crafts; just as South Africa did in the few short, hopeful years that followed the end of Apartheid. Or they replicate the look and feel of international offices they have visited. Then we have the self-made man with his huge photographic self-portrait, rendered on canvas and framed in gilt.
None of these flights of fancy help your employees to feel better about their workplace; and their impact on visitors is rarely what you would wish.I’m delighted that some businesses are now creating workplaces that reflect their desired culture. This is especially important in Africa, where employees. do not consider the workplace to be a safe place.
A technology company I know has taken the bold step of moving out of its incubation space. A rustic cottage, it was quiet and informal but terribly run down. For the Europeans in the business this was fine. But for their local staff – young people making a special effort to keep their own small lodgings clean, to dress well, and to travel some distance to work – it was an entirely demoralising environment. As the business grew, they even lost the security of their own workstation and the necessary privacy for meetings. Suddenly cool and ‘Boho’ became cruelly pressurising.
We’ve helped them make the move to a formal office, as an integral part of building a strong and productive corporate culture. This has given employees a more aspirational environment, and a place where they know where to sit and see the organisation clearly in its open plan layout.
Now we’re embarking on an internal design process in which staff will collaborate. And one thing is for sure. We won’t be putting up any Mission, Vision and Values posters.
Chris Harrison leads the Brand Inside