As any tenured manager knows, fostering a team with a strong and healthy culture is challenging — and given the twists and turns thrown in by inflation, low employment rates, and the unpredictability of the current business environment, it’s become even more difficult. Technology that rapidly emerged during the pandemic has allowed us to develop and foster diverse teams that span the globe. But, it begs the question: at what expense?
First, let me be clear that I’m not condemning the use of technology and demanding that all office-goers return to their cubes, against their will, to sit all day under fluorescent bulbs. I do believe that virtual technologies, like Teams, Zoom, and Slack, have allowed us to collaborate across distance with speed and ease, but the fundamental elements that pull people together and allow great progress to happen still exist in both the physical and metaphorical “space” that companies and managers provide for their employees.
The Benefits of Collaborative Physical Space
In addition to many of the traditional leadership skills successful managers lean on (think Patrick Lencioni and Steve Covey), space is a tool that can be deployed to ensure that a team is fully prepared to tackle the challenges that are thrown at them in ever-turbulent times. Can true trust and empathy be portrayed if you’ve never sat in the same room as a person and had a conversation with them? Can comradery over a success be felt the same way virtually as it can with group of people celebrating together in person?
Just as a good carpenter wouldn’t embark on a project without a well-rounded belt of tools, a good manager or executive would be remiss to consider managing a diverse team without a collaborative space of some sort entering the equation.
For quite some time, a beautiful office space has been touted as the universal fix to all cultural, recruiting, retention, and collaboration issues an organization might have. Though we all know that an office space will not be the magic cure-all that some traveling furniture rep may try to convince you of, that didn’t stop the allure of the “cool office as a corporate band-aid” concept from ballooning into the real estate tech scam that eventually imploded with the WeWork scandal. We have a saying in our office: “furniture won’t fix that.” For example, furniture won’t make a difference when it comes to bad management, interpersonal office conflict, or when Fernando over-microwaves his clam chowder and eats it in a meeting room, leaving the smell of clams to linger for the rest of the day.
Successful organizational cultures are intentional by design, not the product of default or serendipity.
– HAWORTH, “HOW TO CREATE A SUCCESSFUL ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE
Consider How Space Factors into Company Culture
What we should consider is how space can factor into the larger equation of the company or culture trying to be built. Of course, many considerations play into the type, size, and function a space must provide for the overall company and its individual employees. There are a lot of questions that should be asked:
- What type of work is expected to get done in the space?
- Which roles function better remotely some, or all, of the time?
- When people are in the office, what function does the space serve?
- What roles need to occupy the space, and who are the individuals in those roles?
- How do those various roles interact with one another?
- How do managers support or interact with their direct reports?
- What type of space makes most sense for the company; owned, leased, public?
- Does the space need to foster creative, divergent work; convergent, focused work; or a combination?
- Do departments demand a variety of spaces based on the projects that team works on? How public or private is their work, what kind of privacy needs are required?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer, and environments often need to change over time alongside the changing needs of a team and organization. So, rather than considering the office as an “all-or-nothing” space, consider how it impacts the individuals working in it and the company culture as a whole. Just like a T-square helps a carpenter with straight cuts, an office or well-thought-out space can work in tandem with a healthy company culture to help a leader build trust and comradery amongst their team.