Using Design to Transform Culture

Many of us are expecting the hybrid working style to continue after the pandemic is brought under control. Elvira Muñoz highlights how strategic design can be used to enhance an organization’s culture through stimulating workspaces after this physical return.

More than a year into this worldwide experiment of working from home, we have not yet landed on the perfect formula for the workforce being once again in the workspace. Furthermore, not only has the WFH situation lasted longer than anticipated, it has embedded itself into the way we will work forevermore. As vaccines are rolled out, leaders of all types of organizations must now seriously consider how to handle the return of their employees to the physical office space.

This is not an easy consideration. Consolidation projects, refurbishments, office moves – all these initiatives have been frozen and their slow reactivation is occurring amidst an atmosphere of uncertainty and a difficult mix of cynicism, reluctance, and even fear over implementing the wrong solutions. Can strategic design help executives assess and execute the appropriate steps for their company’s return to the office? Yes.

Most of the worldwide surveys indicate that more than 65% of the workforce expect to work in a hybrid scenario. This, in fact, provides the best of two worlds. Working from home supports people’s ability to focus and empowers them with flexibility while the physical office remains the place to connect, collaborate, and socialize with others.

An organization’s culture, on the other hand, is unwritten. It is the silent language of the group, defined by a common understanding of how we do things around here.

In considering the “new” office design, it is no longer necessary – nor recommended – to start with the traditional conversation of data and requirements, such as space measurements, frequency of visitors, expected number of meetings, and so on. This information is still vital, of course, but what must precede everything is a discussion pertaining to culture and the ways in which a company’s culture needs to be transformed in order for the company to sustain success in the new world of work. The actual shape of the office – the types and percentage of various workspaces, for example – will arise from there.

Every organization has its unique values and processes and these are usually laid out quite clearly. An organization’s culture, on the other hand, is unwritten. It is the silent language of the group, defined by a common understanding of how we do things around here. An organization’s culture guides activities through shared assumptions, beliefs, and group norms. Together with strategy, culture is the top lever for an organization to maintain its viability and effectiveness. What has become clear is that those organizations with a more agile culture prior to the pandemic – fast to learn and adapt, employees who help and support one another – were consequently able to adjust to the pandemic sooner and with better results.

So, it is important to first identify an organization’s culture before detailing the logistics of building or enhancing a physical workplace. But, what happens when the culture of an organization does not align with what leadership wants the culture to be? The good news is that it is possible to use the workplace – both the physical and now the virtual – to change and mold the culture of an organization. The key here is being aware of and honest about the current state of the organization’s culture and clearly defining the new, desired culture.

Watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character for it becomes your destiny.

A process of co-creation, through strategic design, can lead to this workspace that reflects the new workforce culture. The strategic designer and team must design for a change of habits within the workforce. This can only happen thanks to a change in the physical space, for example a well-conceived circulation can push workers from different departments to bump into each other in the cafeteria or at the vending machine and thus change their habit of always meeting up with the same coworkers. Furthermore, locations designated for multi-use or are client-facing should be in a central location, easily accessible to everyone. Now that many organizations operate in a hybrid manner, the physical space must align with the virtual space (and vice versa), which entails boosting employee’s digital experience and agility through clear and seamless internal processes and company structure, methods of communication, and incentives. This implies the need for a careful analysis and likely updating of the organization’s audio/visual systems, interactive intuitive technology, and social platforms.

Aligning how individuals act in the workplace with company culture is a priority because this is where habits come from and these habits become something greater. As the saying goes “…watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character for it becomes your destiny.” The accumulation of individual habits is what defines the culture of that group of people. What we have before us now is an opportunity to retain the best parts of office culture while freeing ourselves from bad habits and inefficient processes.

Sony Music is an excellent case study. For decades the company was incredibly successful but had shifted from a highly creative culture to a results-driven one. The culture became characterized by achievement, with employees acting independently, and not particularly fast to adapt to changes, and the workspaces reflected strong hierarchy and were merit-based. The arrival of music apps like Spotify and Shazam disrupted the sector and presented a challenge to Sony Music, which in turn put a huge strain on the teams. When the CEO contacted my group at AECOM, he understood that the offices need to change but was unclear about the new location, size, atmosphere, or about the occupation strategy.

What they needed was a stimulating environment, one that could produce the dynamic and interactive culture necessary to succeed in the evolving industry, and that could organically foster employee’s creativity. The process entailed the testing of multiple prototypes and developing a process of co-creation to engage employees as a whole group (thereby addressing the individualistic culture.)

The results:

– Decrease in physical space from 5,800 m2 to 1,600 m2

– Shift from all-assigned, enclosed workstations ranging in size related to company status to a fully unassigned, open plan.

– A +50% increase in common areas.

– Increased personalization of collaborative spaces, each dedicated to a Sony artist by employees during the co-creation process.

During the first year of the new workspace (and revamped culture), the number of artists visiting the office increased significantly from one visit per week to two-to-three daily. The company held events in their new theater, which was located by the entrance and even prompted a spontaneous mini-concert when the delivery person realized that he was delivering right in the middle of the action and showed up one day with his band. Some artists have even recorded their videos in this office.

Not only did the new workspace reduce overhead and churn costs, as well as the company’s carbon footprint, it gave shape to Sony’s Music’s renewed company culture, one focused on learning and exploration, and where employees can remain independent but be agile enough to adapt quickly to change. Importantly – and appropriately for the industry – there is a focus on enjoyment, a culture of fun, risk, and excitement. The new space allowed the company to recover a culture they had been lost after the many years of success that made them drift into a staid comfort zone.

It is essential to be aware of just how much a built environment impacts behavior. The power that space has on how we act, interact, think, and create is immeasurable. We do not act the same way in a classroom as we do in a church or a casino or a fast food restaurant. For this reason, business leaders should focus on more than achieving a digital transformation, regardless of how trendy this endeavor is at the moment. A company’s physical space will continue to play a key role in the lives of employees and the work that they produce together. As companies around the world prepare for the post-pandemic physical return of the workforce – even for just a few days a week – a transformation of the office space is practically mandatory. This opportunity to effect cultural change should not be missed.


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