MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

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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.

Has workplace design become a proxy for salary suppression?

Has workplace design become a proxy for salary suppression? We sit in meetings almost every week in which our clients – large product development, manufacturing and marketing companies – lament their ability to find, hire, and retain the educated, innovative, and engaged engineers, designers and others who will make their businesses competitively successful. A "skills gap" in other words.

We are engaged in these conversations because our clients ask us to design a workplace that will be an effective tool in the attraction and engagement of the people they are trying to hire. If this article in the New York Times is correct, our clients are using workplace transformation programs as a device to cover for other strategies in hiring. Could this be true?

"What employers describe as talent shortages are often failures to agree on salary."

The article continues to say –

If a business really needed workers, it would pay up. That is not happening, which calls into question the existence of a skills gap as well as the urgency on the part of employers to fill their openings. Research from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “recruiting intensity” — that is, business efforts to fill job openings — has been low in this recovery. Employers may be posting openings, but they are not trying all that hard to fill them, say, by increasing job ads or offering better pay packages.

Corporate executives have valuable perspectives on the economy, but they also have an interest in promoting the notion of a skills gap. They want schools and, by extension, the government to take on more of the costs of training workers that used to be covered by companies as part of on-the-job employee development. They also want more immigration, both low and high skilled, because immigrants may be willing to work for less than their American counterparts.

There are many reasons to improve education, to welcome immigrants and to advance other policies aimed at transforming the work force and society. But a skills gap is not among them. Meeting today’s job challenges requires action to improve both the economy and pay, including government measures to create jobs, strengthen health and retirement systems, and raise the minimum wage. Fretting about a skills gap that does not exist will not help.

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