The term workplace environment takes on multiple meanings in the lexicon of corporate America. In terms of the cultural innovation model, it refers to the office set-up, the interactions, and organizational values. Beginning with office set-up a major impact is how the office is. Is it an open and inviting space with windows or is it a closed setting full of cubicles? Is there an opportunity for interacting with team members and cross-functional role players or is intermingling dissuaded? While there are numerous questions to ask on the workplace set up, the goal is to have an inviting office. This consists of natural light that encourages discussion through its process and tools. While still giving opportunities to have privacy to enable deeper levels of thinking.
The second-factor area on the environment is the company as a whole. Does the company have a mission that the team connects with and actively advances? Is there a brand recognition that the members want to live up too, similar to Google and how their employees commit to making the world a better place? Also, does the organization’s reputation play a factor in how ideas are generated? While Asana software prides itself in getting to a minimum viable product before going live, other companies like Hewlett-Packard have a brand reputation of high quality that demands that products and ideas are thoroughly vetted.
Lastly, values impact the workplace environment in terms of creative output. For example, a strong employee and employer relationship built of trust will garner greater creative sharing, while a toxic partnership with hinder that sharing. Is there a high level of corporate bureaucracy that weeds out risky ideas or is there a flat organization that is a meritocracy and the best ideas win out. Associated with this are the unwritten values or the organization. Written values to many appear as bumper stickers and slogans without much substance. But there is a hidden layer of values that aren’t written but encouraged through promotions and being left alone for following them and punishment for not adhering to them. Examples include getting blackballed during the next round of promotions for bringing to light safety violations or receiving a bonus for a failed experiment on trying different ways to hit a revenue sales goal.
The workplace environment plays a pivotal role in creativity. View the environment in the same context as a child that has an abusive home life, their odds of thriving are severely diminished. The same can be true of a workplace where employees can thrive or just barely survive. The overarching goal of the organization would be to get people to run to work because they were so excited to be there versus running away from work at the end of the day. Technology companies have been taking this approach of creating environments where people enjoy going. At many of these companies, you will find free breakfasts and lunches, gyms and exercise classes, and games. While none of these have anything to do with the creativity they build a sense of belonging where the employees feel welcome and more apt to share their full ideas.
Going into a micro-level on the environment creates a paradox for creative thought. There has to be outside or external interaction to stimulate creativity and there also has to be privacy to conceptualize ideas. This creates the logistical component where people need personal privacy to create and they also need interaction at the same time. While many companies have gone with an open office concept under the guise of eliciting more creativity, it was actually a cost-cutting measure that didn’t provide a sense of privacy as well and has failed miserably in terms of building a creative environment.
A sound workplace environment provides comfort to the employees in their ability to work, what boundaries can be pushed, and how risky they can be. This environment can be the feeling that people love or hate about their workplace. Values are rules that govern an organization formally. Formal values, however, do not typically reflect the real way an organization is run and is left to being governed by unwritten rules. The corporate motto may be to take bold actions and daring risks, but if the manager punishes a risk-taker, the unwritten rule of caution will be followed. In turn, the organization will be neither risky nor bold.
The office is also the playing field it is where the work takes place. It can be inviting or oppressive but either way, it sets the tone for the interactions of the team and leadership. This environment guides the work process that establishes the location for interactions and the tools can enable the creative process. A great collaborative environment can inspire the process. Also having software and meeting spaces that elicit an open flow of communication are mandatory. The tools can also hinder the process and keep the team from achieving flow.
There are many areas to evaluate in terms of how enabling a work environment can be. Are there meeting rooms that have the ability to have designed cross-functional events to interact? Are there privacy booths that give the ability to be alone and think through issues? Linked to these two questions are if the organization values having this environment of collaboration and privacy or if it is not okay to use these methods and spaces.
Next is looking at the team home and clarifying if it is a collocated or virtual team? Having one or the other leads to a set of a common set of norms that goes off track when you have a blended environment of some people collocated and some virtual. When looking at the design of the environment if it pushes people to engage or does it make it harder to participate? There will be natural deterrents to this collaboration. For example not having a meeting room can deter creative collaboration. However, shifting the session online resolves this issue.
The last interaction is between work environment and leadership. The environment is owned by the team but governed and dictated by leadership. The leadership’s behaviors control and shape the environment and set the tone in a positive or negative way. The main indicator of this is seeing how much a team can flourish or flounder when their manager is out of the office for the week.
Netflix has methodically built a workplace that drives innovation and performance. Their methodology goes against the common practices of other technology companies as they apply the theory of hiring grownups. You won’t find free high-end lunches or ping-pong tables, but employees with a high level of engagement. Teams operate freely and autonomously in their environment yet they are held to a high level of responsibility in their work outcomes.
The organization purposely has high expectations to continuously improve. They move fast and bring products to market very quickly. They execute high productivity demands in order to rapidly bring products to market. Their workloads in many cases are cyclical though where there will be heavy productivity times followed by low productivity times. Using their environment of autonomy, they were able to put in place an unlimited vacation policy. They were able to do this without concern because the people that they hired were treated as responsible adults that would act accordingly.
This mindset carries over into their innovation strategies. Innovation is a core value and encouraged through their unwritten values. Risk is encouraged, experimentation is a routine process, and candid feedback is used to spur idea refinement. This all centers around the team’s ability to experiment, fail and learn from what happened. With that knowledge, the team can get it right the next time.
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