Workplace cultures, online and offline

This past week I had the opportunity to participate in Worktech 13 Melbourne, a conference series that covers the intersection of work, workplace, technology and innovation.

One of the highlights was hearing from Steelcase’s Jason Heredia about their “Culture Code” research. This work builds on the work of Geert Hofstede and Edward T. Hall, Jr., with Steelcase’s own researchers conducting a contemporary investigation of the key cultural factors that shape the physical design of the workplace in 11 different countries.

As someone with a European background working with collaborative technologies in Australia and South-East Asia, I have first hand experience of the cultural differences in the workplaces of different countries. There are subtle but important differences even between the English-speaking workplace cultures of the US, UK and Australia.

This diagram provides an overview across two key dimension of the 11 countries they investigated:

Workplace Ecosystem
© Steelcase 2013

These preferences have a knock on affect on workplace design, which also touches on the use of alternative work strategies – i.e. offsite or co-working.

Steelcase suggest that there is less scope in China, India, Morocco and Russia for alternative work strategies, because the work culture is built around the primary workplace.

In France, Italy and Spain there is more scope but it is driven by the economics of real estate costs and population density in cities:

“While working beyond the confines of the office is still not widely adopted in these countries, an infrastructure of co-working spaces, satellite offices and telecenters is emerging in cities and suburban areas as a response to ever-increasing real estate compression and transport congestion.”

But in individualistic countries like the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States and Germany, space optimisation is achieved through working from home, co-working and other third place locations. However, within this group the US and UK the workplace is the most blurred, being “ubiquitous—on the road, at the airport, in the living room”.

If you are interested in the ‘Digital Workplace’ concept (“Work is what you do, not where you go to”), a clear message here is that this idea could be very country or culture specific. And attempting to implement a one-size fits all global flexible work strategy in an international company could run into hard to reconcile cultural barriers. On the other hand, workers in countries with cultures similar to the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States and Germany are likely to expect or demand this flexibility.

Unfortunately Steelcase didn’t include Australia in their research, but we can probably assume that Australia is more like the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States and Germany. However, our rates of telework are lower than both the UK and US but co-working and activity based working (an idea that originated from the Netherlands) is (relatively) popular. And I’m not sure Australians want to adopt either the UK or US work cultures either, particularly our demographics and population distribution don’t justify it. So we’re the same but likely different again.

Similarly, the cultures of China and India might give us hints about places such as Singapore and the Philippines but I know each has their own unique workplace cultures that is reflected in the design of workspaces, both online and offline.