Social distance at workspace by cabin glass screens at office. Business people and coworkers keep safe distance. Colorful.

After extensive lockdowns and restrictions, we are finally getting to a stage where there is increasing pressure to return to the office. Many are questioning whether the Monday to Friday, nine to five model will ever return – and whether it is even desirable to return to this 19th century model.

There are pros and cons cited by employers and employees alike. For example, working from home promotes better work-life balance, but then working from home doesn’t make it easy to connect with colleagues and organisational culture (especially if you have switched jobs during Covid).

The question is: what is going to work best? And more importantly, what is going to work best for your organisation and for you as an employee? Clearly, this varies between sectors and organisations.

Before Covid, because of the growth in flexible work practices and high corporate real estate costs, organisations increasingly introduced flexible, non-territorial office layouts.

However, the full effects of a change to flexible office layouts on human reactions to such workspaces and corporate culture were relatively less well understood.

With this in mind, we examined how existing organisational culture changed with the introduction of activity-based working, or ABW, from the employees’ perspectives.

Previous management studies found four distinct organisational cultures exist: hierarchy, market, clan and adhocracy. Here’s a quick description of each of these four cultures:

  1. hierarchy / consistency / bureaucracy culture: This culture emphasises uniformity and strong control of the organisation with empowering coordination, evaluation and internal efficiency. Key characteristics are hierarchy, rules, meritocracy, accountability, specialisation, separate ownership and impersonality.
  2. market / rational culture: This culture emerged in the late 1960s, as the hierarchy culture could not provide flexibility for organisations when meeting strong market competition. It focuses on competing, and reaching set goals with unsupportive external factors, such as government regulations, license restrictions, customers’ expectations, suppliers’ limitations, external contractors and trade unions.
  3. clan / group / involvement / consensual culture: The focus here is maintaining better relationships and providing greater flexibility for employees to perform their job. Trust, involvement, teamwork and corporate commitment to staff are key characteristics. 
  4. adhocracy /development / role culture: This culture emerged when the developed world moved to the information age from the industrial age. The focus is on external layout and creativity, innovation and resource acquisition.

With increased communication, collaboration, information sharing and knowledge integration in such workplaces, the presence of other culture types such as clan, market and adhocracy have increased noticeably. How did we do it?

Respective workspace layouts ranged from individual offices to open plan offices.

Traditional office layouts, where staff owned and occupied static desks or offices, were mainly based on the hierarchical or bureaucratic culture.

The bureaucratic work theory was gradually replaced by the concept of “management by objectives”, which is based on the notion that organisations are greater than the sum of their individual parts. As a result, non-assigned office layouts are increasingly becoming more commonplace.

With increased communication, collaboration, information sharing and knowledge integration in such workplaces, the presence of other culture types such as clan, market and adhocracy have increased noticeably. How did we do it?

We focused on three different industry-based sectors in Australia – the financial, IT and government sectors – and one organisation from each sector who had introduced ABW between 2012 and 2019.

A survey measured the influence of introducing ABW settings on the existing organisational culture from the employee’s perspective.

The competing value framework measured the different dimensions of organisational cultures and a paired sample test measured changes in employees’ perceptions on their organisational culture after the workplace layout changes.

What did we find?

We analysed 223 surveys. Consistently, all employees experienced culture changes with the layout changes, with a noticeable discrepancy between the perceptions of public and private sector employees.

Private sector, financial and IT, employees perceived that clan culture increased considerably after moving into ABW settings. Flexibility, collaboration, participation, and consensus increased within their organisations, while maintaining competitiveness.

In contrast, public sector employees believed the cultural orientation of their organisation did not change much, and that the hierarchy culture remained the dominant culture.

What does this mean?

These findings are useful to professionals involved in human resource management and the design and management of modern office layouts. Office layouts can support or change the corporate culture of an organisation.

The aim of effective workspace design is to integrate the cultures, values and behaviours of employees to meet the goals of the organisation, with the ultimate result being enhancement of an organisation’s bottom line.

With Covid induced changes, further disruption has occurred to organisational culture and workplace designs. With workplace design, the issue of OHS and the transmission of airborne germs is a high priority.

How is this relevant to the return to the office?

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all our readers. We require 700+ words on issues related to sustainability especially in the built environment and in business. Contact us to submit your column or for a more detailed brief.

Understanding behavioural and attitudinal characteristics of employees provides a better understanding of how they interact and behave in flexible office layouts.

The nature of workplace designs has a considerable impact on the corporate culture of an organisation and can be used to leverage and change the culture. As we return to the office, with the “new normal”, should we be taking the opportunity to review our corporate culture and workspace needs to optimise outcomes for employers and employees?

Professor Sara Wilkinson, UTS

Professor Sara Wilkinson is a chartered building surveyor and Australia’s first female Professor of Property. Her transdisciplinary research program sits at the intersection of sustainability, urban development and transformation, with a focus on green cities and preparing our urban environments for the challenges of climate change. More by Professor Sara Wilkinson, UTS

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