Understanding local culture is vital to using space as a key strategic tool for global organizations.
“All politics is local,” as the saying goes. So too with business: if you’re going to operate outside your backyard, there’s no substitute for knowledge of the local culture, work processes, and workplaces.
In Germany, for example, the emphasis is on spacious offices that guarantee visual and acoustical privacy, while in the United Kingdom workers are used to more tightly packed offices. Status symbols are important in Spain today, but as a younger generation gains influence, a more informal approach is transforming Spanish working life.
To help workspace planners and designers understand the cultural differences in workplaces, Steelcase is conducting extensive research on different cultures and their ramifications for the workplace in eleven countries: China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Morocco, The Netherlands, Russia, Spain, United Kingdom, and the United States. Studies in the European countries were recently completed and are in process in the other countries, but even at this early stage the learnings are significant.
Cultural awareness is vitally important in an increasingly interconnected world. “Whether you think your company is global or not, you’re global,” says Catherine Gall, research director for Steelcase in France and leader of the WorkSpace Futures team conducting the research. “Businesses compete in a global marketplace. Company offices, clients, suppliers, and other resources can be located anywhere yet they are interconnected. It’s important to understand the differences in how people work, their sense of hierarchy and teamwork, how they manage others, negotiate, and conduct other knowledge work activities.”
Cross-cultural miscommunication can happen despite the best intentions. The speed of business today rarely provides the opportunity to fully understand another country before having to conduct business with individuals from cultures vastly different from our own. Few companies know how to use space to bridge cultural differences.
McDonald’s is an exception. They use space design to boost sales and profits. This year the company is launching its first global store makeover campaign since the ’70s, rolling out designs first tested and refined in Europe and Asia with great success. Second-quarter sales in Europe, for example, were up 5.2% year over year, an improvement the company credits in large part to revamped stores.
Their strategy is to respect the cultural values of different countries and cultures and demonstrate that through space. In France, for example, McDonald’s does 70% of its business during lunch. The French don’t snack throughout the day, so there’s a need for space to support the lunch crowd. Once McDonald’s understood these cultural issues, they improved the company’s restaurant designs, including contemporary touches such as glass partitions, modern chairs, and avant-garde wall graphics. Over the past four years they’ve applied this thinking in stores across Europe and, as a result, McDonald’s sales have jumped from $7.1 billion to $9.3 billion. The company now has a corporate design leader for each of the company’s operating regions who contracts with a regional designer to determine local design strategy.
Contrast that approach with how most companies simply transplant home office planning standards to branch offices, without a careful consideration of local market conditions, work conventions, local rules and regulations and, most importantly, the local culture. Given the economy today, many companies opt for the most efficient workplace from an initial cost standpoint, unaware of long-term implications. Even if the company wants to provide a culturally appropriate workplace, there’s little guidance available to help companies link space and culture.
Steelcase researchers used a framework for the study based on seminal work in cultural dimensions developed by Dutch social scientist Geert Hofstede. These dimensions help explain national cultural differences by describing cultural norms regarding distribution of power; the relationship between the individual and group; roles and values assigned to men and women; cultural attitudes toward uncertain and ambiguous situations; and long and short-term orientation. Understanding these dimensions is key to the research findings:
Culture in the workplace
Researchers applied these dimensions to the workplace to develop measures of cultural differences in work and the workplace.
“The implications of the findings for the workplace are profound, since cultural attitudes directly affect design principles. Since the places where we work affect work processes and workstyles as well as performance, understanding the nuances of a the workplace in a different culture has a direct impact on worker attitudes and performance,” notes Gall.
Let’s take a look at some initial insights for five of the countries in the study:
As a country whose people refer to their homeland as “he” and not “she,” it’s not surprising that a paternal, masculine culture dominates work-life here. Germans have the highest level of intensity at work – a combination of high speed and tight deadlines – when compared
to their European counterparts.
Functionality and ergonomics are priorities for workspace design. Buildings around the country boast first-rate architecture and
Competition for so-called “high potentials” and younger employees increases the willingness and openness of German organizations towards more innovative work concepts. As a result, alternative workplace strategies such as home offices and desk-sharing are gaining in Germany.
Independent thinking is highly regarded in the U.K. and facts are considered the only legitimate tools for persuasion. With a strong tendency to individualism in this country, the typical employee relies less on collegial solidarity than their European neighbors.
Rising property costs have been pushing businesses out of the cities into the suburbs and docklands. Strict building codes in historical areas have made modern office space a coveted asset in cities like London. In contrast, the guidelines regarding indoor workspace are less strict and have sometimes led to overcrowded offices with limited access to windows and little consideration for indoor air quality and noise levels. British managers are encouraged to maximize returns to shareholders, and thus employees have less influence on decision-making. Cost control, increasing return on real estate investment, and improving the balance sheet are the key energizers.
One trump card employees have is their career mobility. Low unemployment rates and a large service economy allow individuals to switch frequently between jobs, and as companies become more concerned with retaining talent the workspace becomes an important bargaining chip.
Young workers in India are highly competitive and eager to prove they’re equal to their global counterparts. Ambitious and technology-oriented, these workers are demanding a new social contract with their employers. They want to be supported, recognized and rewarded, and they choose companies that can meet their expectations. Brand is an important differentiator for these young workers and they are gravitating to employers who infuse their identity throughout the culture and the workplace.
Technology enhances company and employee identity in India, so the more tech-rich the space, the better. As India continues to invest in infrastructure, providing access to information and enhancing workplace opportunities to connect with people anywhere in the world are critical concerns.
Workers also value being able to display their individuality at work, with space for photographs, awards, and other personal differentiators, including expressions of religious and cultural values. Company-sponsored family social events at the workplace are a common occurrence in India, so spaces for relaxation and socialization are important as a way for India’s new-generation employers to acknowledge the importance of family and social obligations in employees’ lives. Women now make up 42% of India’s college graduates, and more than half of female grads also hold a post-doctorate degree compared to just 40% of men. Indian women are eager to prove themselves and they are making their presence felt in business.
Thanks to its one-child policy, introduced in 1978, young Chinese (age 15-29) received much individual attention. Now this generation wants to express their identity at work and be rewarded with more opportunities. They value transparency and openness in an organization and dislike networking that happens without them behind closed doors. Their workplace can be made less routine and more interesting by allowing for personalization with accessories, technology, and trendy work tools.
Harmony of mind, body, and spirit is an essential component of traditional Chinese culture. Workplaces that are too small or inefficient can disrupt concentration and creative flow. Adequate space for each person is important, as is the right balance of privacy. Young workers also scrutinize an employer’s location and seek to minimize commuting to allow more time with friends and family.
Pantry and café spaces at work are essential gathering places. A variety of areas for both work and relaxation creates a more desirable workplace, while flexible hours enable employees to pursue interests outside of work.
A country of immigrants with diverse ethnicity, the American culture is frequently described as a patchwork quilt and its key attributes are difficult to generalize. Hofstede’s work identifies the U.S. as having the highest sense of individualism of all the countries studied (with Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Italy not far behind), which speaks to a culture of self-reliance where people look out for themselves and close family members. Equality is extremely important in this society, and this egalitarianism helps explain why most workers received workspaces that are much the same size and type.
For many years, cubicles provided privacy and equality for workers, and simplified facilities management. Status was conveyed with a bigger and nicer cubicle or a private office. Now, workers prefer tools that help them collaborate with others and provide more flexibility in how they work, and they are less concerned with the size of their office. As a result, cubicle walls are coming down and the office is opening up.
Real estate costs, the changing nature of work, greater concern for worker wellbeing, and practically unlimited worker mobility have combined to change U.S. workplace planning. Designers are reconfiguring workspace to balance privacy with worker needs for more interaction. New workstyles, often introduced by Gen Y workers, are being readily adopted by all ages. Given the country’s openness to new ideas, it’s not surprising that U.S.-based companies are quickly adopting alternative workplace strategies such as shared and unassigned spaces.
Taking a Geocentric View
Companies that operate in multiple countries tend to start out with an ethnocentric view, one that’s oriented around their home country and culture. Slowly they evolve to a polycentric perspective that favors the host country’s view in determining local operations. Eventually, global companies adopt a geocentric or world orientation. They don’t equate superiority with nationality, they trade national silos for global teams, balancing both global integration and local responsiveness. To thrive in the interconnected global economy they need to become, as The Economist dubs them, “multinationimbles”, companies that combine scale with an ability to quickly adjust to the fast-changing business environment.
A flexible, geocentric view is important to meeting the challenges faced by global workplace planners, designers, and managers. Balancing the corporate brand and culture with local tastes and sensibilities begins with understanding different cultures, realizing that some change faster and easier than others, and all cultures change in their own unique ways. That collective understanding is ultimately what drives an effective workplace, no matter where it’s located.
More information on Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions work is available on his website.geert-hofstede.com. The Steelcase WorkSpace Futures culture research will be published later this year.