Culture and Workplace – Joining the Dots

Culture. It’s a word of many uses. In science, medicine, anthropology, even cuisine. It’s also sociology, and the way it interprets our ability to interact with each other. Every action requires a cultural memory to succeed. Where we were born, how we were raised, how we conduct ourselves in all situations. Culture is principals, values, beliefs, and it impacts not only ourselves, but where we work as well. And companies have egos, just like humans. Competition breeds it.

Every company has complexity, in that many people from any background are brought together each day, with the intention to perform their best efforts as a group to help each other achieve and prosper. The larger the company, the more complicated such efforts are. That’s where corporate culture comes in.

All companies have a culture. Whether it originates from the top, the middle or the bottom, it’s there. Ordinarily, corporate culture begins with a founder. He or she brings a philosophy, an attitude, and a way of thinking, to start a business. Those hired tend to agree with their boss – else they wouldn’t be hired. Henry Ford is one example. Steve Jobs is another. Culture can come from the middle. Say a company has lost its leadership. That happens in war, when a draft or voluntary service deprives a company of top management. In World War II, many American and British companies were run by those in the middle – women, elderly males, even teenagers, ran the factories. Culture can emanate from the bottom too. In many companies, unions and especially those in Communist countries, workers made policy, and elected their bosses.

Today, corporate culture is expressed in various ways. Unions are diminished. Democracy is more apparent as technology becomes significant – those with technical skill are free to leave when the culture of the company courting them better suits their nature. Office work must appeal, to hold on to a company’s most valuable asset – which goes home at the end of the day. Everyone knows about Google, or Apple, and any other corporation where you can bring your dog to work. But what of the other workplaces, the 9 to 5 operations that must create an atmosphere that most workers, if not all, can look forward to arriving at each morning.

That’s where corporate culture comes in.

“At Google, we design our workplace to build community, to increase velocity, and to inspire and motivate, while eliminating friction and focusing on employee health.”(1)

Case4space’s research says:
“A healthy culture is the key to engagement, innovation, resiliency and growth” (2)

• “More than 70 percent of the workforce either hates their job or are just going through the motion.”
• Half of all office space is wasted
• The number of people who suffer chronic disorders – caused or exacerbated by the workplace –is alarming, scandalous, and exorbitantly expensive.” (3)

Warren Buffet has said that “Culture is hard to measure and it can’t fit in a spreadsheet. For that reason, investors, particularly those with a value bent, often totally ignore it. That’s a mistake.”(4)

Simon Sinek, author and TED presenter, is quoted as saying; “Humans don’t do their best work when they’re stressed out.” He makes the case that the stress of the workplace sets our adrenal system on overload, degrading our health and has caused the rise of chronic diseases in our time (5)

Rex Miller, in “Change Your Space, Change Your Culture,” (Wiley, 2014) says, “American business loses a trillion dollars a year because we do not know that life in integrated. Personal health, safety, marriage, family, commuting, finances and other burdens and crises are integrally related to our ability to achieve and produce.” (6)

Sustainable Design

Brian Barth, author of The WELL Building Standard Has Arrived – An Inside Look At The Next Generation of Sustainable Design, tells the story of Paul Scialla, of Goldman Sachs. Seven years ago, he thought; now that we’ve learned to design buildings that are healthy for the environment, isn’t it time to start designing them to be healthier for people? “Sustainability’ was being used and felt there was a bit of a gap in thought,” he says.

Scialla talked to architects and designers, health experts, real estate professionals, and scientists in fields ranging from ergonomics and acoustics to sociology and psychology. He learned that humans spend an average of 90% of their time indoors and that indoor air quality in approximately 70% of buildings is worse than outdoor air quality. Some connections are straightforward—most people have experienced the off- gassing of new carpet or wall finishes, for example, and understands that the release of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can lead to headaches, nausea, and fatigue. The wavelength of light used to illuminate our workspaces during the day can lead to sleeplessness at night; the design of stairwells can entice us to use them or predispose us to head for the elevator; even the color and texture of wall coverings can influence whether we feel perky and productive throughout the day or bored and disengaged.

“Real estate is the largest asset class in the world with $150 trillion value, globally,” Scialla says. “What if we looked to intelligently infuse that with the fastest growing, and arguably most important industry—health and wellness—in itself a $2 trillion annual spend?” Scialla formed Delos: a research platform, technology incubator, and wellness real estate company. The Delos advisory board is comprised of political and cultural thought leaders, including former HUD secretary and U.S. senator Mel Martinez, CEO of U.S. Green Building Council Rick Fedrizzi and actor Leonardo Di Caprio.

WELL Building

“We’re linking health effects to solutions through elements,” says Nathan Stodola, director of the WELL Building Standard and a mechanical engineer by trade. “For example, a number of cohort-based studies show that people who walk 3,000 steps more per day will have certain benefits to their cardiovascular system over the long term, while other studies show that when you design spaces like ‘X’, you’ll get people to walk more.” 102 performance metrics were established in seven conceptual arenas: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. Our modern healthcare system focuses on addressing health after sickness has already struck a person. But with the increased prevalence of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer—not to mention the immense costs of treating these ailments—the healthcare community has put more and more emphasis on lifestyle-oriented and preventative approaches to health. The WELL Building Standard provides a way to apply this line of thinking to the built environment and has emerged through a rigorous three-part peer review process. A committee of scientists, each with very specific areas of expertise, was convened to establish minimum benchmarks for the quality of water, light, air, and other components of the built environment that directly affect human health. A team of design and construction industry professionals analyzed the implementability of the standards, giving feedback on the best way to incorporate them into current building practices. Finally, a medical review board gave suggestions on how the standards could be implemented for the greatest leverage on public health outcomes.

Delos launched a two-year pilot program in which a number of projects were designed and built using the standard, which provided real world feedback on what it takes to implement the criteria across a number of building typologies. There are now offices in Pittsburg, condominiums in Manhattan, hotel rooms in Las Vegas, restaurants in California, Colorado, and Illinois, and more that show how healthy buildings look, feel, and function in these contexts. CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate development company, built a new global corporate headquarters in Los Angeles as part of the pilot program in 2013, becoming the first office space to do so. Other pilot projects tested the concept in the retail, multi-family, institutional, and mixed-use sectors, including sites in Melbourne, Shanghai, Mexico City, and New Delhi. As of early 2015, nearly 15 8 million square feet of what has been termed “wellness-infused” real estate has been built or is registered for certification— about 30% of it overseas.

In 2013, Delos launched the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) to administer the WELL Building Standard, which is now available to the general public. IWBI is partnered with the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), the organization responsible for LEED certification according to the standards of the USGBC, who is now providing third-party certification for the WELL Building Standard.

IWBI is not a for-profit or a not-for-profit company. It is structured as a Public For Benefit Corporation B-corp, a new corporate structure in the US that is intended to balance profitability with public benefits. IWBI will direct at least 51% of net profits toward charitable causes related to its mission of health in the built environment. IWBI is collaborating with the USGBC to build the William Jefferson Clinton Children’s Center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, an orphanage and model for resilient construction techniques that will be built according to LEED and WELL building standards.

The LEED-WELL Connection

The LEED-WELL connection emphasizes that project managers seeking LEED and WELL certification will experience a highly streamlined process in registering and certifying their projects. There are about a dozen metrics where WELL overlaps with LEED and the Living Building Challenge. A project can be certified as WELL Silver, WELL Gold, or WELL Platinum, and the web portal for uploading information for one automatically populates the relevant fields for the other. LEED has become a straightforward business case based on the dual benefits of reducing energy consumption for both the environment and the bottom line. Where LEED pays for itself in lower utility bills, the payback for the modest investment in the WELL Building Standard comes in the form of human capital, which has significant fiscal implications in itself.

Translating those figures to square footage costs, annual operating costs in an office building could be $3 to $8 -per- square-foot, while corporations could spend around $300 to $800 per square foot on their employee expenses (salaries and benefits).

“Occupant satisfaction in the building is as big a part of the WELL Building Standard as overall health,” says Stodola, citing poor acoustical performance and thermal comfort as the two biggest areas of complaints in the office space. If air quality, lighting, ergonomics, and overall health and human comfort are improved, average employee sick days will go down and productivity will go up. Version one of the WELL Building Standard is optimized for office spaces, especially Class A owner-occupied buildings that are likely to pursue LEED certification.

IWBI is in the process of developing precise standards for retail, sports arenas, institutional environments, multi-family housing, and healthcare facilities, but in the meantime, the first WELL AP classes are forming to educate design professionals on using the standards in practice. CBRE recently published the results of an employee survey given after one year in their LEED Gold, WELL-certified office space in Los Angeles: 83% of employees say they feel more productive in the new building; 90% would recommend the new space to colleagues; 92% feel the new space has a positive effect on their health and wellbeing.

Haworth, an architectural interiors manufacturer using the WELL Building Standard, is carrying out similar studies at their Mexico City, Shanghai, and Los Angeles showrooms. “We’ve built process maps to calculate the time it takes to conduct typical work tasks and have developed statistical methods to see if any of the changes to the physical space had an actual impact to speed and time of business processes,” says Dr. Mike O’Neil, senior researcher at Haworth. Haworth is also collaborating with Delos to develop monitoring devices that will collect real-time data on performance measures like air quality and how people are actually using the space and “beam that back to the headquarters to make sure we’re in compliance over time,” O’Neil says.

The WELL Building Standard is about operations as well as physical design; recertification will be required every three years. “WELL will look similar to a LEED Gold or LEED Platinum building because of the biophilic design where you’re bringing nature into the space, but for me the biggest difference I see is in behavior and workplace culture,” says Steven Kooy, global sustainability manager at Haworth. WELL may be a new way of building, but there is one person who has extensive experience with what it’s like to inhabit a WELL-certified space.

The New Status

Herman Miller’s publication, WHY, in an article written by Drew Himmelstein, reported that when the Sears Tower was completed in 1973, the upper floors of the world’s new tallest building were designed with recessed spaces that intentionally maximized the number of corner offices. Architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill bet that offering more plum office assignments for top executives would make the upper floors, with their already prime aerial real estate and expansive views, even more desirable for business tenants. Forty years ago, such offices were in such high demand that architects looked for ways to add more corners onto buildings. It’s striking, then, that for many of today’s top companies that once essential feature of corporate facilities is increasingly obsolete. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have a personal office; he works in an open workspace with other employees. Count Jack Dorsey of Square, Gilt Groupe’s Michelle Peluso, and Virgin’s Richard Branson are among other chief executives who’ve joined the office-less class. In 2015, some of the most eye-popping, up-to-date offices from Silicon Valley to Sydney, embrace designs where entry-level employees brush elbows (and espresso cups) with executives.

“Status is a fundamental human motivation—it’s evidence that the group values us,” says Tracy Brower, Director of Human Dynamics and Work at Herman Miller. Traditional offices found plenty of ways to reinforce those motivations, giving high-status employees private offices with better views and guarding them from the rest of the staff with administrative assistants. But why has the tide turned on this approach? Brower explains: “On the human side, you’re challenged by the difficulty of connecting to other people and to work—providing that essential feeling of belonging—and on the facility side, you’re being asked to extract greater and greater value from every square inch of real estate.” In other words, an assigned private office—closed off, and underutilized—sounds ideal until you look at the bigger picture. “Status used to separate us from others. Today we better understand that you actually experience status within groups—this also contributes to why we’re seeing more and more open office environments.”
Brower was part of a team that researched what motivates people at work as part of the development of Living Office, Herman Miller’s new approach to realizing higher-performing, human-centered workplaces. They identified six key human needs—security, autonomy, belonging, achievement, status, and purpose—and are using these to help guide organizations toward purposeful choices in office design.

The Chicago staff of CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm, recently moved into a new light-filled office occupying three upper-level floors in a tower in the city’s central business district. Most of the office’s sit-to-stand desks are in an open workspace that provides clear visibility of other coworkers and the sweeping views outside. The private offices, which are unassigned and called “Offices for a Day,” are plated with glass and are available for any employee’s use through a reservation system. In the corner spaces, there aren’t desks at all, but areas designated for collaboration. No one has an assigned desk. The space couldn’t be more different than the company’s previous location, which consisted of perimeter offices and workstations divided by high panels toward the center of the floor, according to Lauren Brightwell, senior project manager at CBRE. The office got little natural light and overlooked a parking garage. Even so, Brightwell says, some senior executives were reluctant to move.

In order to recognize individuals who once had the status of a private office and to showcase their accomplishments, a prominently located media wall now displays employees’ awards and achievements. These are effective ways to reinforce status without relying on traditional office design, Brower says. “The physical environment is only one set of factors to consider,” she adds. According to Brower, status can also be conferred holistically through managerial methods (like providing mentoring and increased leadership opportunities), and access to updated technology, tools, and resources.

Healthier Outcomes

Building employee relationships company-wide can be incredibly valuable to a business, according to Scott Doorley, creative director at the Stanford and co-author with Scott Witthoft of “Make Space, A Guide for Designing to Encourage Creativity”. When the Macquarie Group, an investment bank, redesigned its headquarters in Sydney, Australia, it was driven by similar product concerns, according to Amanda Stanaway, a principal at architecture firm Woods Bagot, who was the lead interior designer on the project. Macquarie’s offices had previously grouped its employees by department, creating what Woods Bagot terms “command and control silos,” where employees had assigned areas they were expected to work in during office hours under the watch of the team’s managers. But the bank was concerned that the rigid design, which kept employees in different divisions apart and placed managers in visible positions, hindered the speed at which the bank could bring products to market, Stanaway says. If, for example, the financial services team developed a product without ever collaborating with the tax experts, the product might easily have unforeseen tax implications and need to be reworked.

In Macquarie’s new offices, no one has assigned desks or offices, and employees naturally group themselves based on the project they are working on at the time. Each employee has a locker and access to a variety of workstations that facilitate both individual and collaborative work. The result is a client-oriented office culture that also saves money by using space efficiently—a priority in Australia, where commercial office space is at a premium. (11).

On the other hand, in an article in the Washington Post, on December 30, 2014, a personal essay by Lindsay Kaufman said, Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace. Workplaces need more walls, not fewer. “A year ago, my boss announced that our large New York ad agency would be moving to an open office. After nine years as a senior writer, I was forced to trade in my private office for a seat at a long, shared table. It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies. Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive. Nothing was private. On the first day, I took my seat at the table assigned to our creative department next to a nice woman who I suspect was an air horn in a former life. All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling and laughing, along with music piped in through the PA system. As an excessive water drinker, I feared my co-workers were tallying my frequent bathroom trips. At day’s end, I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5:04 departure time. I beelined to the Beats store to purchase their best noise-cancelling headphones in an unmistakably visible neon blue.”

Despite its obvious problems, the open-office model has continued to encroach on workers across the country. Now about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. Silicon Valley has been the leader in bringing down the dividers. Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express are all adherents. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg enlisted architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world, housing nearly 3,000 engineers. And as a businessman, Michael Bloomberg was an early adopter of the open-space trend, saying it promoted transparency and fairness. He famously carried the model into city hall when he became mayor of New York, making the “the Bullpen” a symbol of open communication and accessibility to the city’s chief.

These new floor plans are ideal for maximizing a company’s space while minimizing costs. But employers are getting a false sense of improved productivity. A 2013 study found that many works in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. Nearly half of the surveyed workers in open offices said the lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for them and more than 30 percent complained about the lack of visual privacy. Meanwhile, “ease of interaction” with colleagues — was cited as a problem by fewer than 10 percent of workers in any type of office setting. In fact, those with private offices were least likely to identify their ability to communicate with colleagues as an issue. In a previous study, researchers concluded, “the loss of productivity due to noise distraction…was doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices.”

The New Yorker, in a review of research on this nouveau workplace design, determined that the benefits in building camaraderie simply mask the negative effects on work performance. While employees feel like they’re part of a laid-back, innovative enterprise, the environment ultimately damages workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Furthermore, a sense of privacy boosts job performance, while the opposite can cause feelings of helplessness.

Kaufman continued, “As the new space intended, I’ve formed interesting, unexpected bonds with my cohorts. But my personal performance at work has hit an all-time low. Each day, my associates and I are seated at a table staring at each other, having an ongoing 12-person conversation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s like being in middle school with a bunch of adults. Those who have worked in private offices for decades have proven to be the most vociferous and rowdy. They haven’t had to consider how their loud habits affect others, so they shout ideas at each other across the table and rehash jokes of yore. As a result, I can only work effectively during times when no one else is around, or if I isolate myself in one of the small, constantly sought-after, glass-windowed meeting rooms around the perimeter. If employers want to make the open-office model work, they have to take measures to improve work efficiency. For one, they should create more private areas — ones without fishbowl windows. Also, they should implement rules on when interaction should be limited. For instance, when a colleague has on headphones, it’s a sign that you should come back another time or just send an e-mail. Headphones are the new closed door in offices. And please, let’s eliminate some music that blankets our workspaces. Metallica at 3 p.m. isn’t always compatible with meeting a 4 p.m. deadline. On the other hand, companies could simply join another trend — allowing employees to work from home.”

So what is it to be?

Rex Miller says “Part of a leader’s job is to provide a safe place for employees. A safe place is marked by relief, hope, focus, and achievement.” He goes on to comment, “Many people go to work with their life in shreds. They are barely hanging on. Whoever you are and wherever you work, people around you seriously struggle with special needs kids, long commutes, economic pressure, teenager and marriage problems, health challenges, single parenthood, aging and infirm parents. Many people are stressed before arriving at the workplace. Ignoring these real-world problems is a very expensive mistake. The toxic bottom 20 percent of employees costs U.S. businesses $550 billion a year, stress drains another $300 billion, chronic health conditions balloon to over $1 trillion, and working in sick buildings adds another $60 billion.”(9)

There you have it. We’ve heard from experts –social scientists and CEOs aiming to reform our sometimes backwards approaches to workplace harmony, and an employee who doesn’t agree with the professionals.

Culture is indeed as the thing that distinguishes a happy workplace from an unhappy one. But as mentioned before, culture is what culture does. It’s all relevant and no iteration of it is the same as another.

(1) Change Your Space, Change Your Culture-
(2) Case4space
(3) Rex Miller, Change Your Space, Change Your Culture
(4) Warren Buffett, Change Your Space, Change Your Culture
(5) Simon Sinek, Change Your Space, Change Your Culture
(6) Rex Miller, Change Your Space, Change Your Culture
(7) Brian Barth, author of The WELL Building Standard Has Arrived, Barth
(9) Rex Miller, Change Your Space, Change Your Culture
(11) WHY, a Herman Miller publication


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