How Culture Shapes the Office- HBR

Organisational Culture differs from country to country, but how does it affect the way that offices are laid out?

Following a 5 year- 11 country study, researchers at Steelcase (office furniture company) have identified 6 dimensions of workplace culture that shape the social dynamics of an office.

Autocratic v. Consultative

A= minimal communication/ collaboration across levels of power,e.g, Russia – departments are highly segregated with distinct spaces. Employees have little access to executives

C= Employees participate in decision making/ take initiative, e.g, UK work spaces are accessible, employees at all levels participate in decision making

Individualist v. Collectivist

I = Self reliance and autonomy are highly valued, e.g., US eliminating the cubicle in favor of flexible work environments

C= Group Cohesion and Co-operation take priority, e.g., In China employees are comfortable with densely arranged workstations

Masculine v. Feminine

M: Achievement, competition, dominate culture, e.g., In Italy most firms have assertive, competitive corporate cultures. Visible symbols of hierarchy such as private offices are important.  

F: Co-operation and harmony are highly valued, e.g., Dutch organisations generally feature more fluid spaces, encourage equality, and reflect a focus on well being

Tolerant of Uncertainty v. Security Orientated

T: Challenges are tackled as they come, e.g., the British are at ease with unstructured, unpredictable situations, and prefer workstations that promote sharing, mobility and creative thinking

S: detailed processes and structure, e.g., in Spain workers tend to be careful about sharing information and make big decisions only after deliberation. The design of spaces reflect this

Short term v. Long term

S: Focus is on fast return, and minimizing investments, e.g., In US being fast, flexible and innovative is important, spaces should allow for quick toggling between individual and group work

L: Emphasis is on investment and company longevity, e.g., In China spaces embody company history, values, adn rituals. Executive offices are important symbols of tradition, order, and long term stability

Low Context v. High Context

L: direct and explicit approach is key to co-operations between individuals, e.g., In Germany communication is expected to be honest and straightforward. How a message is delivered is less important.  Offices should be outfitted with white boards and other information sharing equipment

H: indirect communication, unspoken signals are essential in building understanding. e.g., China, tools such as video conferencing are used, as they allow participants in virtual meetings to see visual cues such as where people are seated and their body  language to build deeper understanding


So…..designing work spaces to suit the local culture fosters trust and productivity – hence building competitive advantage.