Frederick Jackson Turner wrote about the Frontier and how it shaped, and continues to shape America’s national character.
The Frontier requires independence and self-reliance. Need water? Dig a well. Need a barn? Build a barn. Someone steal your horse? Do something about it. It’s the American way, or at least it’s the American way among those who identify with the Frontier.
Urban citizens have a different perspective. They get each others’ company up close and personal. The population is dense. The infrastructure required to support such a dense population is complex.
An example among many: I’ve read New York City generates enough garbage every day to fill the Empire State Building. Somehow, it has to disappear as fast as people create it. If you live in New York City you can’t just dump your garbage wherever you like. Good thing, too.
Ever since I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (W.W. Norton, 2005) I’ve been fascinated by the impact of biogeography on human culture. So should you, and not only because of its likely impact on why some human habitats are red and others blue.
Culture is the learned behavior people exhibit in response to their environment. Want to change the culture? Change their environment. It’s the only choice you have, unless you think preaching will have an impact.
When the topic is business culture, most of each employee’s environment is co-worker behavior. It’s a fact that results in infinite recursion, and a sense of hopelessness when you want to change the culture.
It isn’t, however hopeless. As a leader you can control your own behavior. You can strongly influence the behavior of managers who report to you. That changes each employee’s environment. You can change the communications environment too. As precedent, electronic mail completely transformed business cultures throughout the world.
That’s the bio part of biogeography. As with the contrast between the Frontier and the Metropolis, the physical environment in which employees work can have a huge cultural impact too.
You can house each employee in an office, as Microsoft famously does. Many admire this practice, as it provides each employee with an environment conducive to concentrated effort. If what you need is a business culture that values independent, concentrated effort, separate offices are just the ticket.
You might need something else. A number of years ago I was part of a very large program of strategic business change — the sort of complex program that required the coordinated efforts of multiple project teams over an extended period of time. The Account Manager wisely decided that each project team should work in a “pod” — a largish area with table space around the perimeter, and a conference table in the middle.
The pod environment, while unsettling at first, resulted in superior teamwork and informal collaboration — the natural consequence of being able to swivel one’s chair to ask a colleague for a moment’s attention whenever a moment’s attention was needed.
Then there’s the much maligned cubicle farm. The cubicle is the minivan of office environments, a compromise between the privacy of an office and the interactivity of a pod. Like all compromise designs it’s easy to ridicule, ridicule being quite different from presenting useful alternatives.
What cultural traits do cube farms encourage? That isn’t an answerable question, because cube farm is about as descriptive as town. (“What’s it like, living in a town, Statler?” “Oh, I don’t know, Waldorf. Better than dying in one.”)
In a cubicle environment you can vary: The total space, partition height, storage, number, size and style of conference rooms, color, and lighting.
There is no right design. Just choices based on how you want employees to act and interact. Want more collaboration? Build in a lot of small conference areas. Like consensus decision-making? Make sure you have enough full-size conference rooms. Otherwise, employees will forego consensus because finding a place to arrive at one requires too much effort.
Want employees to keep their heads down to get their work done? Small spaces and high partitions might be a better choice. They provide neither room for guests nor easy prairie-dogging. Prefer informality and interaction? Encourage this with wider openings, lower walls, enough space for visitors and chairs so they can sit.
To decide how to lay out office space, start the same way you design every other aspect of corporate culture. First, decide how you want employees to respond in common situations.
Then, figure out how to encourage them to do so.