A couple of months ago I was asked to moderate a panel at the Thin Air Conference in Park City, Utah. The panel discussed Corporate Culture – the good, the bad, and the sensible, in a start-up, and in a grown business. Having applied my own ideas and experience at building company culture for a variety of companies, I was excited to participate. Plus, having experienced the cultures of client companies, I thought I could make a contribution.
Participating with this panel gave me the opportunity to hear and learn from others about their views on the topic. Talking about corporate culture is nothing new and while we’ve examined it from nearly every possible angle, I doubt there have been any recent epiphanies. Organizational culture became a widespread part of our lexicon in the 1980s, though the field was examined much earlier. Today, if you type Organizational Culture into a search, there are 27.5 million hits. So, what can I possibly say or add to the mix that hasn’t been overly-examined? In a word – Walls.
During that panel discussion, one of the recurrent themes circled around company transparency or lack thereof. The term wall seemed to emphasize this point. Walls serve distinct roles. And, when driven by leadership – wittingly or not – they impart a very clear cultural message.
Simple example: One president might compel a country to tear down its wall to unite a people. Another might want to build a wall to shut others out. Either way, it ends up as a statement about that country’s belief system and hence, its culture.
The same is true of the walls we construct inside our companies. Some might be placed for support, security, privacy, aesthetics, or even prestige. Some walls are physical, some imaginary, and some are psychological. All however, make a statement and become part of a company’s culture.
While the four walls of an office serve a functional purpose; if its chief occupant is perpetually walled within it, behind a closed door, the implied message is understood by those on the other side. We construct imaginary Chinese Walls to prevent communication that could lead to conflicts of interest. And don’t be fooled by those who hope to create an open environment by erecting glass-walled offices or half-walled partitions.
Although this might appear obvious or trivial, the reality is that the construct of walls is encoded and decoded psychological and culturally in ways you might not imagine. While management might think glass walls create openness and transparency; the recipient might detest the lack of privacy, having a fishbowl quality, or subliminally feeling distrusted. As if following the political lead of tearing down walls or building them up, corporate management has experimented with both.
To create a transparent culture where employees can creatively brainstorm with each other and management can easily monitor, many corporations ventured into a bullpen-style of office space, eliminating walls. Undoubtedly, such configurations are less expensive to the corporation and can accommodate rapid employment growth. But such openness does come at a price. Rather than inculcate creativity, employees tend to get anxious and aggressive sensing a little brother mentally.
Indeed, a 2013 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that performance is improved within walled spaces. Staff need to decompress and have time to gather and process their thoughts. Contrary to the notion that with open space employees will feel valued; like a line from Pink Floyd, “All in all you’re just another brick in the wall,” the reality is that employees can feel commoditized.
Twenty years ago, long before the bullpen-style office space became en vogue for anyone but stock traders, I too thought open space would engender creativity and that staff camaraderie would bloom. It didn’t take me long to figure out there’s a space for work and a space for play.
My experiment was designed to allow our sales and marketing department to hear each other on phone calls so they could learn, support and teach each other, developing their “technique” and messaging. That part worked. But I know there was a hint of frustration at the total lack of privacy.
Even cubicle walls provide a modicum of relief. While we might think the rockers who all sang about pulling down walls would be a cool concept in the work environment; it’s clear that each business is different and the experiments in office environments need to be well-matched to the desired corporate culture and not created by accident or by aesthetic (and this from a guy who has committed his career to the aesthetic!).
Although the Berlin Wall fell nearly 30 years ago, if you ask many Germans, that wall still exists in minds with a lingering sense of division. Psychological walls spring from physical walls and are in fact very powerful and can be the most damaging variety you can install in your work environment.
When employees can’t articulate ideas afraid of embarrassment, don’t voice dissent for fear of reprisal, or leadership is inaccessible for discourse – you’ve constructed a wall and a state of mind. It is this type of wall that is the hardest to deconstruct.
We’ve spent millions if not billions of dollars on perfecting office designs with, or without, walls. Perhaps, in the next round of office design we account for the psychological walls we’ve constructed in our homes, businesses, and country, because more than any other type of wall, it is these that shape our thinking and our culture.