Consider two employees, each performing their jobs in a starkly different work environment and culture:

Mary works in the East Coast headquarters of a national firm. Every day, she commutes to a building the firm has been using since the 80s—and it looks almost the same now as it did in 1986. Rows of cubicles fill each floor. Most of the windows are blocked by enclosed offices used by upper management, so Mary sits under harsh fluorescent lights all day. Each week, the CEO sends out an all-company email with “words of wisdom” and a “motivating thought.” Each week, Mary rolls her eyes as she skims the email. His assistant just pulls these off Pinterest, she thinks. She opens a Word doc, drumming her fingers while waiting for her several-years-old desktop computer to start the program. She’s supposed to put together a layout for the company’s new brochure, which her boss said should be “colorful and edgy.” Hard to be colorful and edgy when you’re surrounded by gray walls all day.

Rhonda also works in the East Coast headquarters of a national firm. Just like Mary, she commutes to work every day, but when she gets to the office, instead of trudging to the same cubicle, she checks an app on her phone and finds an open phone bank because she’s starting her day with a conference call. At the phone bank, which is completely separated from the “focus zones” so she doesn’t distract her colleagues, there are comfortable, clean Bluetooth headsets that sync with her phone and there’s a power outlet on top of the desk — with a USB port so she can plug in both her phone and laptop. After her call, Rhonda runs into the VP of her department on her way to a breakout space where she’ll meet with a coworker to put the finishing touches on a presentation. Rhonda feels completely comfortable asking the VP if she’d mind popping in to the breakout space in an hour or so to give feedback on their presentation.

Who is more likely to speak favorably about her employer? Would you expect Mary or Rhonda to be at the same company 5 or 10 years from now?


Work Environment and Culture Aren’t the Same Thing, But…

A company’s work environment and culture starts with leadership, but it’s best shown through the physical workspace. Think of it as a real-world example of “show, don’t tell.” For instance…

  • You can tell employees you support collaboration, but leave them in assigned cubicles /closed-door offices… or you can create open, shared workspaces that make it easy for an accounting intern to meet and talk to an HR director.
  • You can tell employees you want them to feel supported and comfortable at work… or you can implement technology that allows for individual temperature control so half of your employees aren’t complaining about being too cold.
  • You can tell employees that they should feel empowered to make decisions… or you can let them decide where they want to work each day based on what they’re doing.

The ideal work environment and culture is, of course, a little different for every company—and you should consider whether changing your physical workspace to an agile work environment is even the right move for your company’s goals.

However, once leaders commit to building a culture that is collaborative, the physical environment needs to support this. You can announce a big new shift at the corporate retreat and get everyone jazzed up, but once they return to their desks and cubicles, they’ll go back to the same old way of doing things if nothing changes in their work environment.

Kicking Off Change with the Physical Environment

Trying to figure out how the work environment and culture affect each other is a bit of a chicken-egg conundrum: Does a collaborative culture change the physical workspace, or does changing the workspace change the company culture?

The answer is…both.

If leadership is committed to a creating a certain company culture, changing the workplace is one of the best ways to make that abstract idea a reality. You don’t have an “open office culture” so much as a collaborative culture that’s facilitated by an open office design.

When done right, changing the workplace can lead to changing the way your company operates. Imagine if every employee’s day was closer to Rhonda’s experience than Mary’s—what would that mean for your company?

Creating a positive physical environment leads to a more engaged and productive employee. People work better in a space that promotes physical well-being and social interaction. Then, give them the freedom to work in a quiet, distraction-free space when they need to write a report and move to a more stimulating “break out room” when brainstorming product upgrades. They won’t just get their work done more efficiently, they’ll feel better about the work they’re doing.

Conversation Leads to Collaboration Leads to Innovation

From the start, we’ve been about enabling a work environment and culture that fosters face-to-face interactions. Collaboration and teamwork need to become “new standard operating procedure” for companies to stay competitive , but getting people to work like this won’t happen if you just tell them to collaborate.

One of the most effective ways to get people talking and, eventually, innovating, is to remove the physical barriers that keep them separated. It seems silly to think that members of different departments won’t talk to each just because they can’t see each other, but this is what happens in most traditional workplaces. It leads to “information silos” where, for example, sales and marketing may actually be working close to each other, but have no idea what the other is doing.

But once you facilitate communication by updating the work environment, you’ll start to see those teams talking, sharing ideas, and coming up with new, better, more innovative solutions to problems.

Keep Underlying Goals in Mind

If you’re nervous about changing your work environment and culture so radically, talk to each department and find out what their biggest goals and challenges are. Marketing may want to start making better videos for social media campaigns. IT might be tired of keeping track of dozens of different models of computers, laptops and phones because each department uses something different.

What if Marketing had a designated space for recording video—soundproofed, well-lit, with storage for any props or equipment they may use? What if, because everyone had shared workstations instead of assigned offices and cubicles, IT was able to streamline and standardize the equipment issued?

As you make the changes to your work environment, keep these goals in mind and do what’s needed to support each department. This also shows your commitment to supporting your employees and improving their everyday experience at work.

A lot of elements come together to make your work environment and culture “ideal,” but the underlying question should always be: How can you make people feel productive, supported, and empowered?

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Jonathan writes about asset management, maintenance software, and SaaS solutions in his role as a digital content creator at Eptura. He covers trends across industries, including fleet, manufacturing, healthcare, and hospitality, with a focus on delivering thought leadership with actionable insights. Earlier in his career, he wrote textbooks, edited NPC dialogue for video games, and taught English as a foreign language. He hold a master's degree in journalism.