On workspace design and work culture

Despite being labeled as “hard to change”, culture is actually a very fragile thing. You’d often hear people say that it’s hard to build a culture. But also true that it’s difficult to maintain a good culture. So which is true?. I also think that workspace design has a subtle but important effects on shaping culture at work. let’s explore some of the examples of the modern workspace design and how they can negatively impact the culture.

Hot desks

Hot desking is when the employees are not designated with a fixed seat.

Boosting competitiveness and selfishness

Where one sits depends on how early they get there every day. Most of the time, their seat is reserved for them, their team mates know where their preferences are and I’m surprised to find that most of the time I actually find my seat to be empty.

However, when challenged with expansion or on team movements, the seating arrangement will change and slowly become more settled again.

It sounds like a good approach, but what culture are we really building here? The obvious good one is flexibility. Also the flock mentality that dictate that the people who works together will move in a similar fashion.

On the downside, it’s also building competitiveness. Not every desk is the same. Some has better monitors, some has better ergonomic. Often when complaining about not getting a good seat, the answer is “well, you should have came earlier”. But is that the culture that we wanna have in a productive environment?. There will always be someone that’s last to come in and will end up with the less idea desk. That person, even it’s not you, is someone who is a valuable member of the company. Having the setup that build a culture that put others in a less ideal position for one’s benefit is simply toxic.

Stripping you off you

Yeah sure, it sounds like a good thing, having everyone in the same behaviour. No conflict, no war.

No, it’s not that simple. We as an individuals are innately different and there’s that natural instinct to be able to tell one from another. Having a hot seat system means there’s no way to customise one’s desk. Every desk looks the same. There’s no way to fashion a photo of the loved ones or having fancy productivity boosters like custom keyboards or funny memes without the price of packing and unpacking them everyday.

Culturally, it’s creating a bunch of robots without creativity. Not allowed to customise their desk leads to the feeling that we are not meant to change anything, that self expression is not encouraged.

Employee engagements

Familiarity can be a powerful tool. People are drawn toward nostalgia for example, that forgotten familiar thing of the past. Hot desking doesn’t allow that to happen. Before one has settled in they have to move away. Not just the desk they are siting on, but the surrounding environment like the people next to them, the location from the toilet, the morning walk from the front door.

When a simple daily task is not familiar everyday, it can feel unsafe, like sleeping in a hotel room or being at a friend’s house for the first time. It’s difficult to feel at home when one is not familiar with it or to be able to build a routine.

Culturally, it’s building detachment. It doesn’t allow an employee to be fully part of the team. And when we don’t feel at home, we don’t feel safe.

Open Plan

Open plan office is when an office has no barriers between employees.

Diversity buster

The most common complained disadvantage of open plan offices are the noise. It’s common that conversation will pop up easily anywhere. It could be a good thing to encourage communication.

However, for some individuals, this form of communication is less favourable for them. Communication shouldn’t be forced but should be natural. More often, the lack of the safe space is the hindrance to communicate. Open plan offices doesn’t solve that problem.

Culturally, it’s discouraging diversity on communication preference. Everyone is expected to be loud and clear, or to be interacting frequently.

Ignoring trust

Supervision is one of the benefit of having an open plan workspace. Having each other seeing what one is doing all the time is meant to be more productive because it reduces distraction and personal stuff.

But it also destroys trust, or neglect the need of one. You don’t need trust if you can see them all the time.

Team work when it’s not needed

It’s nice that most workplaces have great and kind people who are happy to help when needed. Sometimes collaboration will only be effective if everyone is in the same space.

However, even in an open plan, one can pass their day without talking to anyway but still be productive. Friendship is often forged from collaborations and meetings which often happen inside a closed space or outside of the office.

It’s also annoying to disrupt someone when they have their headphones on or when they’re concentrating on something. And sometimes people are actually annoyed by one’s constant nagging for help and most people don’t hide it well.

Culturally, it’s building insensitive. It’s encouraged that one shouldn’t be afraid to walk to another person and disturb them. And not just the person we are interacting but other people around us that could be distracted by things that we do.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that we should be more aware of some negative impacts everything can bring in a culture. Most of these impacts are not a showstopper. But it’s important to acknowledge them and try to mitigate them when possible.