When walking into a corporate office or an apartment, I am always struck how the physical space is like a mirror. It reflects the thinking and the culture of those who have created it or live there and work.
A recent visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar set me thinking about this. I have been there a few times and every time I have experienced a similar feeling- one of serenity and tranquility. Anyone who has been to Amritsar knows the crowded location, traffic chaos and the noise all around. But once you enter the Golden Temple, all chaos and the noise vanishes. The only sound is of the beautiful Gurbani music. In fact just as you enter the temple complex, you become aware that a different experience awaits you. Volunteers receive your footwear with a smile and a great sense of dignity. At that point you know, this place is different. Then one enters through one of the four entrances. Which signify openness and acceptance. The ritual of covering your head and washing your feet in cold flowing water before entering the temple, again sets the context for the experience. The large serene water body inside with white marble structures in the center, have the effect of calming you down. Long open corridors to read and meditate allow one to go inside of oneself and experience stillness. The space simply makes it redundant for anyone to have a conversation, ask for directions or wonder what to do next. The entire physical space and all the activities are designed to occasion an unique experience – from going around the Harmandir Sahib, collecting the Prasad, to visiting the inner sanctorum, receiving the blessed Prasad, disposing the cups, getting water to wash hands, drinking the water -are all in a logical circle. A very thoughtfully designed place of worship, with a clear intention to make whoever enters there, experience a sense of peace and inner calm.
Space or the physical environment impacts how we think and interact. And this is also true for organizations: the kind of physical environment and space they create reflects the culture of the organization and it influences the behavior of the people working there. However, very little attention is paid in designing the work space to manifest the organizations foundational values and support the organization vision.
Like the Golden temple, couldn’t we design our workspaces to create the experience we desire? Today we want teamwork and free flowing interaction. We want creativity. We want all to learn. We want the employees feel at home with a sense of belonging. We want innovation. We want to serve our clients with the best possible solutions. Then, don’t we need a work space that facilitates seamless interactions between people across functions? A space that doesn’t confine people to a department or a business unit or a client ? Why not a space that allows people handling similar client issues to work together? Create more of the “water cooler” sort of space that allows people to gather around and share thoughts. A space that has a play-school like atmosphere which makes people child –like, breaking from their adult paradigms and to relax and let go of their egos. Organizations talk of “open door” policy- but the bosses sit in a closed cabin with secure doors, guarded by their executive assistants- that does not create an open culture. Employees are expected to feel engaged and take pride in working for an organization, but they are not allowed to enter from the main entrance as it could spoil the looks of the main reception. It’s reserved only for important people. So most take a backdoor entrance. That surely doesn’t create pride or engagement with the organisation.
We understand well what the space can do in the context of a brand- the location, the store look and feel, the ambient environment- all influence and shape our experiences with brands. No one better understood the power of space than Steve Jobs. He paid utmost attention to not only designing Apple products but also to the physical space. Apple stores are designed to give an unified experience of all Apple products to its customers. The stores are spacious, airy, bright, without clutter and exude simple elegance. The service is professional and hassle free. It is consistent world over. Apple office space is architected with a need for people to bump into each other, thus creating unexpected interactions and exchange of ideas. To have people “think different” he had to create space that is different. With a conventional office he couldn’t have enabled innovative thinking.
Space design is increasingly being industrialized. Everything has become modular. There are off the shelf solutions for all your needs. It is outsourced to external agencies or to the internal facilities team. Often the objective is cost management. Very little thought goes into the environment and cultural aspects of space: how do we reflect our corporate values? How can the physical space enable collaboration, learning, greater interaction, breakdown of hierarchy, facilitate creatively, attract people, want them to come to work and enjoy the time there? In short, how can we reflect the soul of the organization?
Maybe the time is ripe for brand management practice to extend into every aspect of an organizational space. May be its time the leadership saw the power of space, and treat it as an ally in creating the culture they want, rather than let it just happen.