If culture is an organization’s only truly sustainable competitive advantage (which it is), and a winning BRAVE culture is comprised of behaviors, relationships, attitudes, values and the environment (which it is), then you need to think about how your work environment is communicating and informing your corporate culture (which it is whether you’re thinking about it or not).

From “I” Space to “I” and “We” Space

layout of a social/learning space

layout of a social/learning space (Photo credit: University of Michigan MSIS)

Steelcase is in the business of creating work environments, offering workplace products, furnishings and services. As CEO Jim Hackett explained to me in a recent interview, workspace design historically mirrored the organizational chart, with people jockeying to be as close as possible to the seat of all power – the CEO. But now that information revolution has made information the new seat of power, there is much more flexibility in workspace design. Thus, as Hackett explained, the workspace of the future needs to:

Celebrate the shift of what we call the ‘I’ space to the ‘we’ space… Space has to enable and empower information in ways we only imagine… (across) a continuum of I and we work… people need a range of settings to accommodate focused, collaborative and social work in both open and enclosed environments – in other words, a palette of place.

This manifests itself in Google ’s corridors set up for impromptu information sharing, in Microsoft ’s celebrating the power of programming in its team settings as people “conquer the code,” and in conference rooms where information has a seat at the table.


Workspace as Leading Indicator of Cultural Evolution

Darwin made it clear that survival of the fittest is not survival of the smartest, strongest or fastest, but survival of those best able to adapt. As organizations adapt to the changing macro environment, their internal environment must change as well. Hackett has seen some examples of this done well in offices including Deloitte University’s in Plano, Texas. As Hackett put it:

Learning represents the strategy of the company.

Deloitte celebrates its expertise across the university facility from the “story wall” in the lobby to the “associate finder” that enables anyone to find anyone else in the massive facility. In many ways, the whole university is one large “we” space.


Allocate Workspace to Issues Instead of to People

Steelcase’s own offices have evolved as the company has changed, and serves as another example of how to use workspaces to communicate and enable corporate culture. When Hackett became CEO in 1994, one of the first things he did was to move all the executives off of the same floor and into a leadership “we” space.

Now, instead of designing traditional offices, Steelcase creates “we” spaces around the three-four most important meta issues. According to Hackett, executives don’t need homes, “command-level projects” do. So there might be a project room for a team working on a merger, product launch or a recall. Instead of people bringing information into meetings with executives, the information stays in the project rooms and executives travel to it. As Hackett explains, they made this shift because:

Innovation requires collective ‘we’ work. To this end, it’s critical to design spaces that not only support collaboration, but augment it (with) spaces that promote eye-to-eye contact, provide everyone with equal access to information, and allow people to move around and participate freely.


Manage Your Environment in Context

Your office environment is not just the context for what you do, it’s an important choice itself. There is no one best environment for all organizations. Instead, plan and put together your office environment as a core component of the BRAVE culture you choose to create. Create an environment that:

  • Supports behaviors which lead to business productivity.
  • Enables people to relate to each other and to information the way you want them to relate.
  • Reinforces your attitude, more severe and hierarchical or more relaxed and fluid as appropriate.
  • Lives and breathes your organization’s values.


Click here for an overall executive summary of the New Leader’s Playbook and links to each of its 300+ individual articles on Forbes organized by category.