Organizational Culture Implications on Office Design and Employee Performance

by Stephanie Heiple — In the past decade, the term “company culture” has been avidly utilized to describe the synergy among employees in office environments. The concept of company culture relates to a formation of individuals sharing in values or beliefs to represent a unified group identity. As humans differ in personality, values and family background, the physical workplace environment is challenged to house this diversity of people. It is estimated that Americans spend a third of our lives working, and company culture impacts an organization’s ability to attract and retain.

Long gone are the days of staying with a sole company for an entire career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker stays at his or her job for 4.4 years. This lack of time span spent at a company may relate to disinterest in the job position, management style or the workplace environment. It is believed the Millennial generation expects to stay in one position for less than three years. This may relate directly to company culture, as a 2012 survey led by Net Impact found that 88 percent of workers considered “positive culture” essential to their dream job.

How exactly is culture defined, and how is it differentiated among companies? Culture is a ubiquitous word that is used to define human activity outputs, physical space and boundaries, attitudes, ideas, values and communication style. It’s a word that can often be so interchangeable that the definition becomes lost. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word culture as: “The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” This ideation promotes the concept that culture revolves around the success of the team, rather than the individual. Workplace culture essentially cannot exist without its employees; it is something that is learned through peers and interactions between them.

Just as visiting someone’s house can intimate a vast amount of personal information, the environment silently communicates the values of its residents. The same can be said about a workplace configuration, in that the values of the organization should be apparent to the visitor when walking through the space.

Organizational culture

Organizational culture is another phrase used to describe the personality of a company, specifically related to business operations.

The concept of organizational culture began in a 1998 study by MIT’s Sloan School of Management. It is described as: “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation.” Organizational culture is ever evolving mostly due to generations of humans possessing different traits and methodologies working diversely at tasks.

The idea of organizational culture is based on three common characteristics:

  • Concept of “shared” is critical to the success of the organization
  • Culture is constructed socially and is affected by the physical environment and its past history
  • It resides at all levels and layers within a company

Physical environment fosters organizational culture

When entering a workplace, it can often be very apparent why the overall mood and organizational culture of a company exists as it does just by viewing the physical environment.

Historically, workplace and corporate facility design allocated square footage allotments based upon status of the organizational chart. The CEO’s office was often the most luxurious space, regardless of whether or not he or she used it often. Since the technology boom in early 2000s, open office configurations have become a popular way to address equalizing square footage allocations. Facility design should be thoughtfully created around users and their needs to be successful, not the other way around (fitting users into the environment). Many companies in the past have failed tremendously due to the “stay or leave” mentality when it comes to the physical space. If employees are unable to interact and alter their space based upon the needs of the organization or the culture, there becomes a disconnect which can lead to employees leaving the company.

As no company’s values, missions and management style are the same, neither is the physical environment. The workplace configuration must be based upon the goals established by the company’s leadership — a top-down approach. Workspace should be designed so employees are able to utilize the physical environment in a way that adds the most value to their employer’s bottom line, enabling for choice on how much interaction they want at any given time. There is no true right or wrong way to design to an office space; it just must be for the people and their organizational culture.

There are five design attributes that can differ based upon a company’s organizational culture. These attributes can shape a successful productive environment.

  • Ratio of individual to team spaces
  • Workplace amenities
  • Daylighting accessibility
  • Materiality, color and furniture selection
  • Technology

Ratio of individual to team spaces

If the nature of a company’s work output is highly confidential and work is based on individual assignments, the office design will typically have more closed offices and fewer collaborative spaces. Higher walls allow for individuals to focus on tasks and meeting deadlines without the distractions of surrounding peers. In this circumstance, conference rooms and break rooms may be the only areas in which users come together to interact.

If teamwork is especially important to a company, the ratio of shared areas will be high and individual space allocations will be smaller. Smaller footprints will be allocated to the individual than the team and one will often see a diverse spread of high square footage space for groups. Workstation panel heights will be lower to allow for teams to interact effectively with one another in close proximity.

Despite the presence of four different generations in the workforce, each generation prefers to meet face to face to exchange information and ideas. The style of the meeting room can signify a lot about a company’s culture. The orientation and shape of a table can signify cultural values; for example, a rectangle table is seen as more hierarchal and triggers feelings of individuality, whereas a circular table is seen as a collective perspective, with equal participation encouraged.

Workplace amenities

Workplace amenities have become more prevalent in office design as an indicator of exceptional organizational culture. A break room with some vending machines is not cutting it anymore as a nice place to which employees can retreat.

Google has unveiled the building plans for its new London headquarters, set to open in 2015, which will house one million square feet of space. They plan to include amenities like an outdoor swimming pool, full-length indoor football field, rock climbing wall, rooftop garden, indoor bicycle and scooter tracks, on-site shower facilities, as well as break away rooms for relaxation and contemplation. The goal of these spaces is to keep employees on site as much as possible. By observing employee behavior patterns, Google found that the way to keep employees engaged and happy is to allow for a one-stop shop for all their health, wellness and mental wellbeing needs.

Access to daylighting

In the past, daylighting has been a coveted resource reserved for management. Today, one can understand the organizational culture of a workplace based upon the placement of daylighting opportunities.

In Ron Friedman’s book, “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace,” a study completed in 2003 found that when call center employees are placed near a window, an additional US$3,000 is generated per year based on their productivity. Friedman sites another study completed in 2013, which found that office employees who have a window within their personal workspace sleep up to an average of 46 minutes more per night than those who operate out of a space with no windows or daylighting.

The view from the window can also have an effect on the user’s experience, promoting happiness and healthy wellbeing. It has been found that visions of natural landscapes are more healthful, when compared to urban landscapes of city concrete jungles. In some cases, urban landscapes were even found to have a negative effect on one’s health. Research indicates that natural landscapes and scenery views promote short-term recovery from stress, faster physical recovery from illness and an improvement in employees’ wellbeing (Velarde, Fry, Tvelt 2007).

Materiality, color and furniture selection

Materiality and furniture selection immediately signify if a company culture respects and values the comfort of its employees. If employees are working in 30-year-old furniture from the 1980s, with low dropped ceilings and outdated carpet tiles, this signifies companies are not valuing the employees’ experience at work. Investing in the design of an office allows building occupants to understand where profits are being spent and creates a comfortable environment in which they can spend the majority of their day.

Color can truly brand a space, signifying what interactions are to occur in areas. A research white paper entitled “Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances” which was conducted by Ravi Mehta and Rui Zhu, found that blue and green wall colors have been utilized to enhance performance on brainstorming tasks. Red has been linked to aiding with employee heads-down work, especially with minute details that require heavy concentration. Stark white walls should be avoided as they promote feelings of being in a hospital, leading to tension and discomfort.

Some human primal instincts relate to animal behaviors experienced in the wild. Often large land mammals choose not to walk through an expansive open meadow toward their prey, walking instead along the tree line to feel protected from view. The same is true with workspaces in that there should be enough of a visual barrier so employees are able to feel comfortable to do their work without the notion of being watched at all times.

The same theory applies to the closed environment, as sightlines are important, especially for security measures. The less vulnerable employees feel within their work environment, the more apt they are to produce meaningful and often profitable work.

Are employees able to personalize their space? Personalization allows employees to carve a little piece of their life into their work environment. The Journal of Environmental Psychology has found that “workplace personalization (plants, awards, pictures of family and friends) is positively associated with physical work environment satisfaction, job satisfaction and overall employee wellbeing.” If employees have no space to call their own, the organizational culture may suffer as workers may not feel vested.


Are different levels of management utilizing technology at your work? Organizational culture is best learned through action and observing others, so the more utilized a space or a technology, the better. Choosing tools and solutions based upon the culture of the workplace will enable creativity. The University of Exter’s School of Psychology revealed that if employees are involved in the design layout and technologies of their workspace, they are likely to be 32 percent more productive than employees who were not included.

Integrating top technology into a workplace can be a point of attraction for the Millennial generation. According to Accenture, Millennials have grown up with access to information at their fingertips and are accustomed to that on-demand lifestyle. Companies that possess outdated technologies may hinder the organizational culture, as not implementing these necessary tools can hurt communication.

How to assess workplace organizational culture

Taking a stroll around an office environment and analyzing the five physical design attributes mentioned above will allow for a deeper understanding of the organizational culture. If employees are happy and given the tools and real estate they need to effectively succeed in their positions, one can quickly tell by walking around the facility.

Other ways to observe a company’s organizational culture based upon the physical environment include:

  • How is individual space allocated? Are there standards for square footage based upon position within the company?
  • What visuals are posted to drywall?
  • In what ways are employees personalizing their allocated spaces?
  • How flexible is the furniture to be modified per the use of the individual?
  • What spaces are the most commonly occupied?
  • Where do employees eat lunch?
  • What complaints have been vocalized about the facility?
  • Are employees able to regulate the level of artificial light, sunlight and temperature?
  • In what areas are employees laughing and chatting with one another?
  • What physical spaces do employees avoid?
  • How is this environment unique from other offices/departments?
  • Are there spaces within the building that are off limits to certain levels within the company?

Research suggests that employees who feel valued and that their needs are met are more apt to stay with a company. The physical workplace can help shape these needs. According to Harvard Business Review, “Happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome: raising sales by 37 percent, productivity by 31 percent and accuracy on tasks by 19 percent, as well as a myriad of health and quality of life improvements.” Holding interviews and surveys to gauge the population’s perspective on culture can be a fantastic starting point for real estate renovations.

In conclusion, it is thoughtful to consider the physical real estate as a silent communicator for organizational culture. The concept of possessing and understanding a strong organizational culture is so important that even in a down economy, culture can pull through and retain employees. Organizational culture is not “one size fits all,” and the physical environment should be an extension of the culture, showcasing the values of the workforce.

Stephanie Heiple, M.S., NCIDQ, LEED AP BD+C, EDAC, FMP, IIDA, is a workplace strategist at Goodmans Interior Structures in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. In this position, Heiple focuses on improving office interior environments through change management, instilling a strong connection between a company’s values and the physical space which employees occupy. Heiple is also a faculty associate at Arizona State University, instructing upper division interior design studios.

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