Prepare for cultural diversity
With a distinct culture and a workplace that reflects this culture you are more likely to attract like-minded team members and clients, with aligned values and goals. Of course, it doesn’t mean that your people will be like clones. Team members with different personalities, cultural backgrounds or generations will still have their own ways of thinking and working. And sometimes they will have disagreements.
Apart from dealing with differences between your team members, you also need to prepare for situations where teams from different cultures — your employees, clients, other stakeholders, and perhaps different departments within your organisation — will need to collaborate. When businesses merge or take new directions, these situations are especially likely to occur.
Diversity within a team, when managed well, is an asset that fuels performance. (This is a reason why you often see corporates mixing with freelancer consultants, social entrepreneurs and hipster coworkers.) But a cultural clash can be a real problem if not handled skilfully.
A modern-age tale of the princess and the tramp
Once upon a recent time, the owners of two professional services firms decided to merge. These two firms had very different cultures: the smaller one had a relaxed, youthful, light-hearted culture and flexible work style, while the larger one was more traditional, disciplined and regulated.
After the merger, the smaller team moved into the premises of the larger one, without the owners giving much thought to making the space ready for this move. From this moment on, things went downhill. Clashes in culture triggered tension amongst staff: the smaller team found their new office boring, uninspiring and claustrophobic, while the larger team found the newcomers’ work area messy and unprofessional, and perceived their work ethic as careless. (There might also have been envy in the mix of emotions.)
The conflict persisted despite major investments in coaching and change management programmes. This prompted the owners to seek other solutions, and so they started to talk about creating a breakout space in the office that would be strategically designed to help bring the two teams closer. Unfortunately, this project was delayed until it was two late.
Within a few months, most of the smaller team left. The situation also took a toll on the performance of those who stayed. Due to fear and skepticism around introducing any new change, innovation came to a halt. And since people couldn’t agree on training styles, professional development came to a halt, too. Doing nothing has became the only ‘safe’ option. The merger has essentially failed.
Design for cultural diversity
No one can tell for sure if redesigning this office could have prevented this disaster. Workplace design can only make a limited contribution to what is largely a management issue, but this is often sufficient to make a vital difference.
To support the collaboration of people from different organisational cultures, your office space should:
1. Emphasise the common ground
Example: Use the space to draw attention to shared goals and values. Display images and statements that remind people of what they all stand for.
2. Allow people to work the way they are most comfortable and productive
Example: Create a wide variety of work areas that support different ways of working, such as workstation areas, formal meeting rooms, informal meeting spaces, workshop spaces and quiet rooms.
3. Enable people with different work habits to work in close collaboration
Example: Provide team spaces with a range of mobile furniture elements that can be arranged in different configuration, and are equipped with AV technology along with traditional work tools.
4. Offer spaces that will likely appeal to everyone
Example: Create a pleasant breakout space. Everyone loves nature, views to the outdoors, sunshine, plants, natural materials – so have as much of these as possible.
5. Celebrate the uniqueness of individuals
Example: Provide opportunities for team members to share their unique insights, such as idea boards allowing people to put up any ideas, messages, photos, fun stuff, etc.
6. Bring people closer during the design process
Example: Involve your teams in the design of your office, let them share their ideas and make some decisions. This will not only bring people closer, but they will have a stronger sense of connection to the new environment.
7. Encourage playing, humour and fun
Example: Provide areas for playing, and use fun decoration. There’s nothing like laughter to get people to connect, build trust and start enjoying working together. Furthermore, positivity boosts all aspects of performance, while playing and fun enhance creative thinking. So apart from having a good time, your people will do a better job!
While a well-designed office can’t perform miracles, it can help maintain a unified culture that still allows for individuality, and also attract the right people into the business.