How To Build Culture Through Office Design


Culture is the only long-term competitive advantage an organization can bring to bear, and one of the most powerful ways to cultivate culture is building it—literally—into your workplace.
Culture is the only long-term competitive advantage an organization can bring to bear. Over the lifetime of an enduring business, team, product and execution are supporting players: rockstar executives will jump ship, network effects can fade, and new challengers emerge with increasing frequency in our tech-mediated economy.
Once you’ve defined a vibrant culture, how can you help your team live it? One of the most powerful ways to cultivate culture is building it—literally—into your workplace. In this article, we’ll review what culture means in the organizational context, and suggest five ways to integrate culture into your physical environment.
Defining Corporate Culture
There are countless ways to define culture, but one of the most popular theories was developed by Edgar Schein, professor emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management. In his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, Schein defines culture as a pyramid with three levels. The foundation consists of basic underlying assumptions shared by a team—unstated beliefs and modes of thought—followed by espoused beliefs and values, which are goals and aspirations that might appear in a mission statement.
The final level of the pyramid consists of artifacts—tangible manifestations of underlying assumptions and values. Dress code, your logo, the structure of team presentations, and your physical environment are all cultural artifacts.
Artifacts are the main way teams interact with culture. As the most prominent artifact in your organization, your office is a crucial vehicle for ensuring culture is not only known, but lived and perpetuated. Let’s dig deeper into five of Schein’s basic cultural assumptions, and explore how to convey your organization’s point of view on them through office design.
How close are members of your team, figuratively and physically? Do certain parts of your organization function separately from the rest? Space is among the most fundamental of Schein’s basic assumptions, and clearly relates to the layout and nature of your workplace.
Open layouts with integrated common spaces foster a sense of connection, fluidity and creativity among your team members, while cubicles or private office layouts are conducive to execution and focused collaboration in smaller groups.
How does your organization consider authority? How do you decide what to do? The distribution of team members within your space serves as an implicit and powerful expression of cultural assumptions with regards to authority.
In a hierarchical business, the “corner office” with an executive desk is a physical symbol that rank has its privileges. On the other hand, a “flat” culture could disperse managers among employees, equipping everyone with the same tools and furniture. A compromise layout might offer executives privacy in inner offices, but distribute corner offices with the gorgeous views to pods of junior employees.
Do your team members rely on scheduled meetings or serendipitous collaboration? Do people work long hours or keep a typical schedule? If you took the clocks in your office away, would your team be more productive or less? The notion of time as a driver of culture may seem abstract, but the awareness of time deeply inflects how your organization works.
Organizations where the awareness of time matters more—professional services and other client-oriented businesses—are well served by a design that helps colleagues hold each other accountable. Semi-open bullpens facilitate collective time management, while clear barriers maintain transparency in meeting spaces and private offices.  
For teams that depend less on time—creative agencies, startups, research groups—physical design can blur the boundaries between home and office. Soft seating, common areas and casual furnishings smooth the awareness of time passing, while private nooks and booths let team members cloister themselves for indeterminate periods of creativity.
How does your team know what is happening? Do you trust someone to tell the truth, do you decide it together, or do you prove it with empirical metrics?
In cultures where controlling information matters—legal offices, or sensitive R&D—your office should reinforce the importance of visual and auditory confidentiality. Decreased density is complemented by private booths, sound attenuating privacy panels and high-backed furniture. Furniture can redirect people in transit to paths limiting spontaneous interaction, complemented by central spaces for planned collaboration.
In transparent cultures, open floor plans permit maximum visual and auditory equivalence. Visual freedom can be complemented by screens broadcasting key metrics for all to see, while collaborative spaces are accessible and clear.
Are you individuals or a collective? Do team members express their personalities or conform to a uniform style? Relationships are the fundamental building block of any culture, organizational or otherwise.
In cultures where disciplined adherence to a shared norm is most important, the office should embody those norms though cohesive decor and colors. A roomy event space should have the capacity to hold everyone in the organization for company meetings.
In individual cultures where free expression matters most—creatives, journalism—teams and individuals should be free to customize furniture, lighting and decor within a broad aesthetic. Personalization should extend to common spaces, which can contain modular furniture suitable for any configuration of people.
Build Culture Into Your Space
Designing your office to reflect your cultural assumptions can make a real difference in a growing organization. When you design your office with care, it returns the favor—helping your team grow beyond “culture” that is window dressing for the recruiting page on your website, and into an authentic culture that carries your organization to the next level.