MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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Why you should design for both culture and engagement in the same place


There is thus a time and place to focus on employee engagement, and a time and place to focus on culture evolution. Let’s not conflate the two, or we may end up solving the wrong problem
(“Improving Company Culture is not About Providing Free Snacks,” Alice Zhou, Strategy+Business, July 31, 2017)

I’m not so sure about that. When guarding against the conflation of the content of organizational culture and employee engagement, could it be the wrong move to separate times and places? Maybe the right move is to design a place with the content to nurture the continuity and durability of culture yet adaptable to times of changing focus and engagement.

I appreciate the idea that a heightened quality of experience that is characterized by the spirit that we call engagement may be episodic or periodic. Indeed, the concept of “flow” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) or of scenius (Brian Eno) that might imply high levels of engagement seem in their nature to be transitory, unstable or short-lived.

Yet, it seems that achieving these states of high engagement and performance may be more easily achieved in well-developed cultures if, by culture, we mean a set of behaviors reflecting the values and unique identity of an organization. We expect these behaviors to be constant and culture to be durable and stable.

As a company confronts increasingly complex matters in highly dynamic conditions, however, the pace of its work cannot be a constant. Different conditions in changing contexts require an agility in organizational response, an ability to respond to conditions or develop products or services in modes that are simultaneously or sequentially fast, and slow, and spiky.

This responsiveness will then require ongoing changes in the organization of the organization. A small team of people may meet to generate an idea and, with proof-of-concept and support, grow over time into an organization of hundreds. An organization of hundreds may, at times, need to shape a war room for a small swat team to quickly confront a problem and find a solution. An organization may, in confronting the digital imperative, shift its culture a bit to accommodate the talents and work modes of a new class of employees. 

For people to engage, however, for employees to assemble the energy to meet the mission of the organization, for staff to commit and appreciate the experience of that commitment, they’ll look for assurances of the authenticity of the culture that seeks their engagement as well as the proof that they’ll be supported.

The place of work, the design of the work space, is a powerful signal of this authenticity and support. Overlooking its relevance can erode credibility and trust. How can I believe in a team culture when you isolate me in my high-walled cubicle? How can I believe in a culture of collaboration when the only space where I can engage with others is in a scheduled conference room? How do look forward to a culture of innovation when nothing in the workplace displays the products of my contribution? How do I embrace the values of the organization and behave in accordance with them when my leadership is invisible?

In the best of cases, and organization’s purpose and its culture align exquisitely. That alignment may be the key factor that nurtures great employee experience, that enables agility, and that nurtures engagement through the variable paces of business activity.

That may also be why we think that the conflation of culture and engagement in the place of work as an appropriate goal for design. In that regard, we see the design of the workspace not as independent of culture as Strategy+Business claims, but critical to its strength and viability.

In the course of events in society and business, different times and different contexts breed different conditions for response and action. Employee engagement is critical to success. We consider the activity of organizations and their components as variable, at times fast, slow or spiky, and design the workspace with the agility to respond at pace.

Culture, of course, is durable. We hear the description of culture in many ways but seek consistently to read, or support, the behaviors that are the true signal of organizational DNA. We design to make those behaviors visible in the workspace so that others may read their authenticity and imitate them.

 As we’ve consistently said, the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “get” the experience of work.  Getting that experience is simultaneously about culture and engagement in the same place.

An autoupdating workspace?

A couple of influences this week evoked once again my great interest in how to conceive of a workplace that is continuously updated and enriched by the actions and adaptations of its users. There were, of course, the many reflections on the culture that Steve Jobs developed at Apple. I found interest in a video we’ve referenced before with this specific observation about the Apple design culture – Every time you present the user with a non-essential decision to make, you have failed as a designer.

It is easy to appreciate the meaning of this in the experience of Apple’s products, and in its retail environments. In architecture in other places, it conjures up Mies van der Rohe, Tadao Ando, Louis Kahn, and others. The work of each is beautiful in its sparseness, in its precision, in its critical attributes, in its reduction. It is also easy to imagine how these environments would be seen as disappointments to those who were not their direct commissioners.

The notion that google's Chrome was developed as a blank platform with an “autoupdater” that progressively enriched the platform is a great inspirational concept, too. An app gets progressively more valuable as the experience of thousands or millions informs its designers, providing the insights for its progressive development and enrichment.

Buildings learn, it seems, but rarely cumulatively. And in between the experience of the users of a building and its learning potential is an authoritarian structure charged with control and armed with the limiting tools of standards. Its role is unidirectional by intention, but even when embracing an interest in more progressive approaches it is under-resourced to effectively and accurately receive and respond to information coming from the direction of the occupier/user. The user is, of course, also under-resourced, without tools or opportunities to experiment or implement what they perceive to be better approaches to environments that might help them do their jobs better.

Designers are unintentional disappointments, as well. That is, the desire for recognition from peers, and for appreciation from users, frequently generates fully-loaded designs perceived as rich environments for their purpose but stripping the user of opportunity for authorship.

Is it possible, in then, to develop a workplace infrastructure in which the initial commission can be the minimally awesome product, and in which the users have resources and authority to make progressive adaptations based on a commitment to purpose and a goal of performance and the insights from ongoing experience?

What do you think?

Jim Meredith

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