The culture chasm

WEYCO, Wisconsin. Photo credit: John Magnoski, Architecture & interiors: HGA

Leading businesses cannot afford to compromise. Now more than ever they must strive to attract and retain the best employees. Why? To drive business forward, carpe that diem, stand out from competition and come out of the pandemic swinging like Iron Mike. Being part of a leading business is aspirational: like a supercharged magnet continually attracting the best minds and breeding internal competition.

Cautiously emerging from the Covid cloud, like Phil Mitchell on a 7am milk run after an all nighter, we find ourselves at a crossroads with businesses facing a wide range of psychological, operational and spatial issues: mental health, struggling workplace culture, hybrid working challenges, work-life balance aspirations plus physical adaptations to the office – whether obligatory or voluntary. No wonder nobody can make a bloody decision.

As bizarre as it may seem, amidst a backdrop of change there are a significant number of company owners insisting on a complete return to pre-Covid normality. Rather than adapt to the new landscape by taking on employee concerns, they choose to dig their heels in and do diddly squat. “Nothing to see here guys. As you were.” These business leaders are generally from the school of ‘you’re lucky to have a job you know’.

only the strong survive”

In a clubhouse Chatroom recently, a prop tech expert (hey Sebastiaan) commented quite rightly that in the talent war, the talented always win. The less talented, less driven or less confident miss out. My response was that in this case, the companies attracting the best talent prosper. And businesses not committed to upping their game tumble down the desirability index. Some ultimately fail partly due to this ignorance, fuelling a never-ending economic cycle where the strong innovators lead the pack. Could it be we’re heading into an economic supercycle fuelled by startups and new aspirations amongst a post Covid boom? Or will the dust settle and we just look back on that time we worked from home for a year with bewilderment as we mindlessly commute in and out of cities without question.

I hope not. And I doubt it.

Broadspectrum Auckland. Design: Wingate Architects. Photo credit: Sam Hartnett

I’m currently consulting for some leading international businesses and designers, to make Covid adaptations and improvements to their workplaces: more soft seating areas for breaks and socialising, more room between workstations, more greenery to improve air quality, screens and curtains to divide areas. These businesses are investing in outsourced creative specialists to assist with operational issues. Offering flexible working, but with special activities or themes as incentives to tempt people into the office on Mondays and Fridays.

They’re using a carrot, not a stick.

If these leading businesses simply traded on their reputations as being number one and took the ‘you’re lucky to still have a job’ approach, they’d no longer be leading businesses. Talent would migrate to competitors who are listening and responding to employee needs. This would have a detrimental effect on their product, whilst their competitor benefits from their mismanagement. Businesses ignoring market demands should consider how WhatsApp lost 9m customers to Signal the week after announcing a much-disliked new data collecting and sharing policy, in one of the fastest mass market share migrations of recent times. Cockiness kills.


Business leaders pay heed. Rather than focus on reducing real estate to cut costs, first consider how it can be repositioned to be a true asset in every sense. I’m not suggesting there may be no streamlining or cost reductions. I’m saying that each company should start by first asking their employees how they can support them. What do they need and expect from their employer and how can the office as a facility best support this?

Note: this doesn’t all have to cost huge sums of money, but can have a massive effect on employee engagement and loyalty.

Planisware Munich. Design: INpuls. Photo credit: Laura Auburger

An office or headquarter should be a mission statement, reflecting company values, acting as spiritual home and ideation hub. Nurturing a positive and trusting philosophy of support and wellbeing. Gently tempting the pyjama-clad cereal munchers back to corporate surroundings. Those bosses issuing demands and strict deadlines for an unconditional return to the 5 day workweek are unwittingly positioning their offices as a workhouse.

Stick rather than carrot.

This era of challenge and transparency is full of opportunities for those listening hard. It will help to define or destroy many companies (and CEO’s) in the coming months. Expect more major announcements of mergers as businesses look to streamline and cut costs. Meanwhile others will invest in their real estate and their employees. And expect some established names to fall by the wayside as change leaves them behind.

In the words of The Matrix’s Smith: “That, Mr Anderson, is the sound of inevitability….”