How to Create a Successful Organizational Culture: Build It—Literally

An excerpt from Haworth’s “Organizational Culture”

50% of employees struggled to feel connected with their company’s culture and colleagues during the COVID-19 remote work experience.

What is organizational culture?

The term “organizational culture,” or “company culture,” is a relatively recent addition to our vocabulary from the 1980s. Most simply, organizational culture involves how an organization functions and expresses itself. It’s the personality of an organization and encompasses three basic components:  

Of course, you know that it’s the people that make the culture. In order to maintain, adapt and evolve their cultures, companies need to keep people over a long time period. 

According to a Deloitte survey in 2020, job loyalty for Millenials and Gen Z increased as needs were being met—needs such as mentoring, informal social interaction, amenities, and both personal and professional skill development.

Culture creates a sense of order, continuity, and commitment that permeates every aspect of the organization, from how employees interact to customer perceptions. Culture is often difficult for an organization to articulate, but its impact is far reaching and influences management, process, products, employee attraction and retention, productivity, reputation, and ultimately the bottom line. Since 1982, when Tom Peters and Robert Wasserman, Jr. sparked interest in the topic through their book In Search of Excellence, organizational culture has increasingly come to be understood as an asset to enhance performance.

No matter how strong an organization’s planned procedures, culture trumps strategy when the two are not aligned. The best strategic concept won’t work in isolation, especially if it conflicts with the overarching culture of a company. For example, Apple Computer’s commitment to innovation is cultural, not process driven. As a result, the organization has flourished, virtually untouched by competition and with a distinct culture all its own. 

Diagnosing culture establishes a starting point for positive change.

A company that doesn’t understand its own culture is like a person without an identity. To encourage change and positive growth, the first step is to analyze the existing culture. Even if an organization is relatively satisfied with its culture, assessment is still important to provide a common language for a conversation about current culture, workspace, and direction for the future. It’s typical to discover a difference between existing and desired culture, so diagnosis is critical in order to effectively implement a space that both supports desired culture and helps create ideal working environment. 

Knowing the current culture allows workplace change to be enacted at a reasonable pace without alienation or resistance. A cultural diagnosis might also point to specific groups or departments—or sometimes even an entire organization—already in accord with the goal. Even in cases where the existing culture is satisfactory, it may still be possible to improve cultural alignment through targeted changes to values, behaviors, and workspace.

Cultures vary from organization to organization. In order to create a profile, it’s useful to lay the values, assumptions, and artifacts of a company into a framework that reveals its basic tenets. The Competing Values Framework™, a model developed from the major indicators of effective organizations, provides this structure and has proven to be a valuable tool. 1

Workspace can be used to leverage and change culture.

Workspace design in the form of common areas, meeting spaces, and individual workspaces are artifacts that can either help or hinder a company’s effectiveness. Because architecture and design are intertwined with culture, the Competing Value Framework’s categories are helpful as a foundation from which to create appropriate workspaces.

The critical achievement of workspace design is to integrate the various—and sometimes competing—cultures, values, and behaviors of people to meet company goals. Each subculture reflects a different image and requires different methods to work efficiently and collaborate. Control cultures, for instance, demand different work environments than Create cultures, distinctions that require contrasting approaches in design.

Committed employees improve company performance.

Research shows that companies with low employee engagement suffer from a 32 percent decrease in operating income. At the heart of employee motivation resides company culture—the prevailing values, assumptions, and artifacts of an organization and its employees. The workspace itself is an important artifact that affects the efficiency and interactions of every employee. To engage workers, it’s necessary to create an environment that motivates people, allowing them to innovate, collaborate, and work efficiently. Workspace strategy and design is a tangible opportunity to convert the office into a space that sets high performance standards.

Successful organizational cultures are intentional by design, not the product of default or serendipity, so how could your organization improve its performance? A cultural assessment of the workspace might be a valuable place to start.

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1 Kim S. Cameron and Robert E. Quinn, 2006.