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Creatures of the Context We Are In: On the Work Spaces of Tomorrow

Corporate context speaks volumes about the corporate culture of a given firm and what its management believes is ideal conduct on the part of its employees. Many bright minds are busy defining their company’s purpose or vision, but too few are occupied with exploring how corporate culture can be adapted to be aligned with and further the former. Yet office architecture, workflows and rituals are designed solely around economic considerations, ignoring how the work context influences human behavior and vice versa.

The right context and culture are necessary for sustained business success, for it is well-established that loyal, dedicated and motivated employees are essential to maximize performance and reap the benefits of change and innovation.

But how to go about shaping culture? How can a corporate vision be actualized and made vibrant throughout an organization so as to guide its members’ behavior? Drawing upon findings from the fields of neuroarchitecture and behavioral science, Europa Bendig and Stefan Baumann explore the cultural models that will be the most relevant going forward, looking at current case studies illustrating how cultural transformation works.

1. The world's greatest office building?

Steve Jobs once said that “the world’s greatest office building” looks like a glass UFO that landed between freshly planted apple trees. Extending over an area of 260,000 square meters, the complex is also one of the largest office properties, and one of the world’s most expensive to build too, at an estimated five billion dollars.

Celebrity architect Norman Foster was hired to lead a battalion of 250 architects to realize Steve Jobs’ vision of the working space of the future, which was completed in 2017 after the CEO’s decease. Minimalist and sleek in design, this spacious glass structure distinctly recalls the pristine surfaces of an iPhone. No more sitting around in cubicles, now it's about ‘hot desks’ and ‘clean desks’ in a spartan, open-floorplan setting aimed at simultaneously reflecting and fostering a culture that places greater value on communication and cooperation. Stefan Behling, Head of Studio at architecture firm Foster + Partners, sums it up in an official video: “Apple Park is a building which is pushing social behavior in the way people work to new limits.”

In the very first week after its opening, though, it was reported that several Apple employees (immersed in their iPhones of course) had bumped their heads on the immaculate glass walls. Head Developer and Vice President Johny Srouji flatly refused to move into an open office, so he built an alternative building for himself and his team on the campus. Sources said lots of people quit when they were required to move in.

What went wrong? Why wouldn’t these hip offices resonate with the staff? How can it be that despite such superb execution a leader of great vision can fail to inspire a company’s teams with this kind of iconic architectural gesture?

Tim Cook is one the few executives to have his own individual office, featuring a rug, wooden table, sunny balcony, art works on the walls and desk with pens, leather folders and books on it. The very head of the company refuses to sacrifice to be part of the otherwise ubiquitous Apple style and clean, open office concept. Why?

The architecture of a given office property has a defining influence on corporate culture, how people working there see themselves and on management views on desired behaviors. In many cases, economic factors principally govern design considerations, be it open floorplan, executive suite, home office or co-working space. And in many cases employees are viewed as resources who need to adapt their behavior to company needs. But economic factors do not necessarily translate into good advice, and in today’s age of never-ending ‘war for talent’, companies face consequences for mistaking this fact. Behavior is not prescribable, and architects and corporate leaders alike need to gain a much better understanding of how work environments and human behavior influence each other.


2. Neuroarchitecture: how context guides behavior.

Neuroarchitecture is an intriguing, emergent field.
Human emotions and the bodily processes with which we respond to our surroundings are mechanisms handed down from the very origins of mankind. This is what neuroarchitecture focuses on to obtain key insights into the laws that govern our responses to spaces and environments. The hippocampal neurons function as an inner GPS system to help us internalize locations, and they are believed to be connected to how we conceptually categorize and remember events in temporal and/or emotional terms. Thus human beings automatically connect memories and emotions with places which then control their behavior in certain fashion.

Realizing the work culture of the future involves major challenges from many areas including decentralization, agile self-organization, the ‘war for talent’, the sharing economy and man-machine collaboration. Accordingly, the aim must be to build upon the insights obtained to create spaces that enhance happiness, well-being, productivity and quality of life by reducing stress and anxiety. For this is how contexts, places and spaces are created, both large and small, such as healthier, safer and better-connected cities and neighborhoods that enable sustainable, socially responsible behaviors on the one hand, and corporate cultures with a clear purpose suitable for meeting the upcoming challenges by supporting employees’ natural motivational flows.

3. The evolution of corporate culture

How can a corporate vision be actualized and made vibrant throughout an organization so as to guide its members’ behavior? How can a visionary narrative for a new type of organization be spatially interpreted through design?

Because places and spaces determine the identity, experience and behavior of people to such an extent, they hold a decisive power in change and cultural transformation processes, silently promoting the new, desired behavior while transporting the vision for the company’s future.

Shaping a culture is by no means a simple matter, and every corporate culture is a product of its time. The world changes, requiring people and systems to change with it.

How can we leverage this insight for our enterprise?
First of all, by accepting the fact that there is no “right” kind of organization. An organization is only ever as good, effective and robust as it fits in with its time and the current market context. An organization should thus always be studied, understood and changed with awareness of its context, for businesses are cultural and social organisms which have to continuously evolve within a shifting context to remain relevant.

Can social change be systematically analyzed and measured? Can cultural evolution be accurately mapped? Psychology professor Clare Graves developed a model for the unfolding of personality and the evolution of cultures and organizations, building theoretically upon Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (motivational theory) and Carl Rogers’ tendency to self-actualization.

We at STURM and DRANG draw upon these fundamental ideas and models as well in combination with our culture map, which we have utilized for 20 years now to effectively study emerging beliefs and behaviors in relation to existing paradigms to enable their instrumentalization.

Six cultural paradigms for societies and corporate cultures have been identified which are plotted along the dual axes of our map. The axes represent opposing orientations and approaches along a spectrum, the values of which are: autonomy versus group orientation (vertical) and predict & control versus feel & respond (horizontal). A universe is thus defined in which the relative predominance of these values within the six cultural paradigms is gauged. Two of these paradigms have lost their formerly predominant relevance for many companies and managers, but still in part characterize most German firms:

Culture of authority
Culture of order

These cultural paradigms inform the design of workspaces at the majority of hierarchically organized corporations that grew large during the era of industrialization. Open floorplan offices, cubicles and executive suites are still with us, of course, but corporate cultures, including particularly spatial and behavior-related aspects thereof, will have to be reconceived if organizations are to become more agile, curious, organic and meaningful in the age of digitalization. The office setting makes a statement about a company’s culture and ambitions, and how the company views and treats its people.

The four future-relevant cultures, with current case studies

1. Success culture: ‘war rooms’ and ‘halls of fame’

Adidas HQ, Herzogenaurach: Arena-like

Adidas CEO Kaspar Rorsted: “When we invest in workplaces, we invest in the future of our company.” Germany’s biggest sportswear maker has a long history of investing in its performance culture, as reflected in the words of founder Adi Dassler: “If I want a job to be done well, I have to create the right conditions.” The Adidas culture is about sports, but also about taking over the world. The company’s employees are encouraged to train hard to be ready for constant competition in the global markets, employing an intuitive sporting analogy. Accordingly, the company’s headquarters in Herzogenaurach is not only called “the Arena”, it is architecturally designed like one as well, thus employees’ workspaces are likened to the athlete’s field. Employees enjoy the privilege of performing at this extraordinary venue, striving for the kind of success that secures a place in company history. The building’s impressive, stadium-like architecture and campus reminiscent of an Olympic village reveal strikingly how the company conveys its success culture through spaces that foster team spirit, motivate and fire up employees to perform and win.

2. Caring culture: home and vitality spaces

The green Amazon Spheres, Seattle

Meaningful for Man and Earth” is the slogan and guiding principle for the new Alnatura Campus in Darmstadt, where the company’s employees and visitors can enjoy being in a climate-neutral building with rammed earth façade. Oriented around an anthroposophical worldview, Alnatura places value on assisting people with their development and avoiding human exploitation to generate income. Other principal concerns in this philosophy are respecting the earth and living consciously in a relationship with the natural world. Thus in addition to a vegan and organic canteen open to the public, the 20,000 square meter Campus features several school and educational gardens where people can observe the organic produce cultivation process from sowing to finished product. Employees can even rent a plot of land to farm themselves.


3. Learning culture: co-creation and prototype workshops

Creative chaos at Google, Seattle

The US company Zappos is exemplary as an organization dedicated to “delivering happiness”. Zappos has introduced “collisionable hours” as a KPI (between staff members and encounters with the public outside the building) as a means of “nudging” people in their creativity. The “culture of collision” the firm fosters is a human-centered design approach for spurring ideas and serendipitous encounters based on the proven fact that the more people one passes walking around in the office each day actually increases cooperation.

Learning cultures such as the above are based on the values of exploration, experimentation, creativity and curiosity. Work environments where such a culture flourishes are progressive places where ideas are hatched and new techniques are experimented with, like labs and hubs. The culture values erasing the traditional lines between employees and innovative customers, experts and lay people in order to devise innovative products and services for the market.

4. Meaning culture: campfires and reflection spaces

A "board" meeting at Patagonia

A company with a staff guidebook titled “Let My People Go Surfing”. There is likely only one company in the world that has made it an official policy to post immediate bail for employees arrested for involvement in an environmental protest: the Californian outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia. Rather than inside four walls, a company that donates 1% of its sales to pro-environment organizations clearly sees its employees’ workplace as the world outside, who get two months of paid leave volunteer at an environmental organization after their first year with the company. Other benefits include “board meetings” held on the beach with surfboards. And every other weekend is extended and work-free. The “un-company” founder Yvon Choinard wanted to build up now has 3,000 employees and records 1 billion in annual sales thanks to an explicit commitment to employees, customers and the planet. Patagonia’s HR Vice President Dean Carter is not looking for a “culture fit” when hiring staff but rather a “culture add” for the organization. The company thus promotes “campfire” settings at its facilities which promote gathering and non-hierarchical dialogue. Work environments in meaning-oriented cultures like this are characterized by tolerance, empathy and dedication to sustainability. Leaders in such organizations are role models for pursuing ideals who reward employees for achieving social and environmental impact.

The world’s greatest office building ...

... is not just a place to put a lot of desks. Rather, it must be the site of a harmonious, resonant environment and culture that guides employees’ motivational flows within and toward a meaningful purpose.
Bjarke Ingels, a rock star in the current architectural scene: “Architecture has the power to give shape to the future we want to live in.” Ours is both a pragmatic and a utopian vision. Drawing upon behavioral and cultural research, we aim to successfully create corporate cultures that accommodate the spectrum of complex, emerging human needs on both the individual and socio-ecological levels.

To quote sociology professor Hartmut Rosa: “The future needs responsive environments and spaces that satisfy human needs, in which people are able to feel resonance with the context.”


Authors: Europa Bendig and Stefan Baumann

Europa Bendig is specialized in cultural codes and narratives that give brands and portfolios cultural relevance and promote customer loyalty. She has been consulting on innovation processes for NGOs and international enterprises for 18 years, active primarily in the areas of luxury goods, health, services, beauty, living and social businesses.

Consumer psychologist Stefan Baumann develops brand visions and transformation and innovation concepts on the basis of insights into an evolving consumer culture. He consults frequently for owner-managed companies looking for effective renewal strategies to regain relevance in a changed market context.