Defining the Code

Economist Pankaj Ghemawat stirred up controversy when he wrote “just a fraction of what we consider globalization actually exists… [and] globalization’s future is more fragile than you know.” But how can that be? We live in a wired (and wireless) economy where a designer in Amsterdam collaborates with an engineer in Silicon Valley under the supervision of a Parisian manager, to manufacture goods in Shenzhen for the Brazilian market. Isn’t this world supposed to be “flat,” as Thomas Friedman famously declared?

In reality, much of our work is distributed across distant places, and leading organizations identify globalization as one of their key strategic goals. But the potential power of our globalized economy has yet to be fully realized. “In 2004 less than 1 percent of all U.S. companies had foreign operations, and of these the largest fraction operated in just one foreign country… None of these statistics has changed much in the past 10 years,” states Ghemawat in his book “World 3.0.” The incongruous state of globalization is nowhere as apparent as in the physical workplace. Workers’ behaviors, preferences, expectations and social rituals at work around the world can vary vastly, yet many multinational firms that expand to far-flung corners of the world simply replicate their workplace blueprints from home. Should today’s work environments become globalized into a cohesive form? Or should they remain locally rooted? The global business world has shed a bright light on cultural differences and generated an extensive examination of values and behaviors around the world. Yet despite obvious differences in the design and utilization of work environments, little attention has been given to the implications of culture on space design. As a result, leaders of multinational organizations often don’t realize that, when used as a strategic tool, workplaces that balance local and corporate culture can expedite and facilitate the process of global integration.

Balancing Global + Local

The global/local tension is well-known to multi-national organizations. What can be globally standardized and what needs be kept local does not follow universal laws. Designing and managing work environments globally requires a deep understanding of cultural ramifications and is a balancing act.

The way in which we perceive and use space is a vital and culturally variable dimension. But most people are not aware of this until they travel to another country and are confronted with an altogether different notion of space (i.e.: amount and kind of light, noise, smells, objects, people). Underlying how space is organized are subtle, unwritten rules. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall, known for his study of people’s relation-ship with their direct surroundings, observed the same paradox about culture: “Culture hides much more than it reveals and, strangely enough, what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants.” Therefore, understanding the cultural significance of space is essential in managing the global/local equation. Fortunately, there are some common threads that run through all cultures.

An intentionally designed workplace is a powerful tool for driving global integration within an organization. Understanding the local culture and drawing strengths from each location helps organizations build a corporate culture that works around the world. Diverse cultural preferences pose different barriers as well as opportunities for collaboration. Cross-cultural collaboration is the driving force behind value creation today. In order to foster creativity and collaboration, the implicit and explicit cultural codes embedded in the workplace must be deciphered and leveraged to the organization’s advantage.

The Geography of Trust

Though globalization can appear to be a scary prospect for some, it is an inevitable and desirable direction for many business leaders. Globalization can be a force of intercultural interchange and increased productivity. Take IBM, for instance. The computing giant holds online chat sessions among employees from 75 nations to discuss the company’s priorities in so-called “jam sessions.” Think how much knowledge can be harnessed when your organization successfully engages knowledge from workers of all backgrounds and cultures. Imagine how much stronger the organization can become when it brings together value creation from around the world.

So what can organizations do to accelerate global integration more rapidly and effectively? First and foremost, it’s important to better understand and address the notion of trust. Citing 5th century Greek historian Herodotus, Professor Ghemawat declares that people “trust their fellow citizens much more than they do foreigners.” Ghemawat goes on to argue that trust decreases as the differences between two peoples’ languages and proximity increases, adding that “differences in how much people in a given country trust people in other countries greatly affects crossborder interactions.”

Companies cannot afford to ignore the trust issues stemming from cross-cultural encounters. “If businesses really respect differences, they will improve their business performance in ways that also better contribute to society at large, fostering a climate of broader trust and confidence.”

The Global Village Inside the Workplace

When designed to foster cross-cultural collaboration and innovation, work environments can help build trust—the currency of collaboration—among coworkers, and between employees and managers. Establishing trust is paramount to success abroad—and can be accomplished by studying the local cultural traits that outwardly manifest themselves in the workplace.

Steelcase WorkSpace Futures began this study in 2009 with “Office Code: Building Connections Between Cultures and Workplace Design” that explored the central question of how cultural differences manifest themselves in the way work is done; what workers need; and how workplaces are or should be designed.

The publication studied patterns of behaviors and design tendencies in six European nations to demonstrate how various cultural dimensions manifest themselves in the work environments. By investigating the key cultural factors that shape the workplace, this exploratory study identified the forces that shape the work environment today. Responding to businesses’ increasing need and desire to integrate global operations, in 2011 Steelcase WorkSpace Futures continued with the second phase of the ongoing project, Culture Code. Collaborating with a diverse roster of business leaders, designers and social sciences experts in Asia, Europe, Africa and North America, Steelcase has built upon the earlier study to further understand culture codes in the workplace. By focusing on the interplay of typical work cultures and workspaces in 11 nations, the research has yielded specialized insights into how to reflect and incorporate important values, employee behaviors and larger cultural contexts into the work environment.

More important, the study has resulted in a set of filters that can be taken beyond the 11 countries in the study and applied around the world to decode the spatial manifestations of culture.

Hofstede & Hall

The work of Geert Hofstede and Edward T. Hall, Jr., social scientists who conducted breakthrough intercultural research, is integral to Steelcase’s Culture Code study of the relationship between culture and the workplace in countries around the world.

By analyzing data collected from IBM employees in more than 70 countries during 1967-1973, Hofstede, a Dutch professor and researcher, developed the first empirical model of dimensions of national culture, described in his 1980 book “Culture’s Consequences.” Subsequent studies and publications by Hofstede and colleagues have extended and updated the original IBM study. Hofstede’s findings and theories are used worldwide in psychology and management studies.

Hall was an American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher who developed the concept of proxemics, a term he coined to describe how people behave and react in different types of space. With the publication of Hall’s 1976 book, “Beyond Culture,” proxemics became widely regarded as an important subcategory of nonverbal communication. His definitions of “High Context” and “Low Context” as a metric of culture have been particularly influential in a wide range of communication and organizational behavior studies.

Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions—Power Distance, Individualism & Collectivism, Masculinity & Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance and Long-term & Short-term Orientation—plus Hall’s High and Low Context communication scale create a framework for Steelcase’s investigation of the factors that influence workplace design in different countries and cultures.

Key Methodology

Between 2006 and 2011, Steelcase set out to delineate the connection between space and culture in 11 countries — China, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Italy, Morocco, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia, and the United States.

Dutch social scientist Geert Hofstede’s seminal works on cultural differences provided
one of the core frameworks for the inquiry. The researchers combined his work with that of anthropologist Edward T. Hall Jr., who developed the concept of proxemics, which explored how people react and behave within defined spaces. By synthesizing Hofstede’s dimensions and Hall’s theory, Steelcase uncovered new insights into cultural influences on the workplace. The researchers observed over 100 workplaces in 11 countries, using six dimensions from Hofstede and Hall.

These models provide a practical foundation for understanding the differences between nations and their attitude toward work/life.

How do cultural differences manifest themselves in interpersonal relationships, confrontational situations, or verbal and nonverbal communications? Can workplace design help reconcile cultural differences and foster trust?

Steelcase’s team of multicultural researchers conducted workshops, interviewed business leaders, designers and social scientists and benchmarked findings in 11 countries. In India alone, the researchers visited 12 multi-national and homegrown companies to highlight emerging design philosophies. In addition to site visits, a total of 30 workshops were carried out in four different continents, bringing experts from different fields to offer insights into design practices from varying vantage points.

The researchers are quick to point out that each of the cultures studied is rich and diverse and that every insight may not apply to every country or company. Sweeping generalizations can be misleading. The value in identifying broad trends and patterns of behavior rooted in culture is to raise cultural empathy and help inform the direction of workplace design, so people in globally integrated enterprises can build trust and work together more effectively.

Six Dimensions of Culture

Power Distance Index (PDI)

Is power distributed evenly (consultative) or disproportionately to a few (autocratic)? This index measures how equally or hierarchically power is distributed in any given culture. In cultures with a high PDI, an individual worker has less chance of exerting power. In such autocratic places, the ideal boss plays the role of a good parent with decisive and authoritative power—with physical spaces to represent such authority. In contrast, consultative countries see everyone participating actively in the decision-making process. While some might mistake one end of the spectrum as superior to the other, these values are actually neutral, merely reflecting what most employees find appropriate. An employee in a more autocratic work culture can be just as content as their counterparts in consultatiave cultures, as long as their expectations are met.

Individualism vs. Collectivism
Do people identify themselves as individuals or as members of a group? In a collectivist society, strong integration in groups is valued over individual achievement. In such cultures, confrontations are to be avoided and, to a large extent, being in harmony with the group is a universal law. On the other hand, an individualist society expects self-reliance and autonomy from its workers. Promoting frank exchange of opinions is a crucial challenge for managers in such societies.

Masculine vs. Feminine
Does the culture show more male (competitive) or female-like (cooperative) behaviors? Hofstede considered masculine and feminine traits within cultures, though these monikers may seem misleading. Masculine—or competitive—cultures foster performance-oriented goals. On the other hand, feminine—or cooperative—societies place greater importance on personal relationships and collaboration. In such countries, work/life balance is one of the foremost priorities.

Uncertainty Tolerance
What is the culture’s attitude toward uncertain and ambiguous situations? The fourth scale measures a culture’s tolerance levels for uncertainty. In uncertainty-tolerant societies people tend to handle unpredictable situations well: ambiguity and diversity are prized values. These cultures prefer limited rules and are more comfortable with change and facing unknown situation. Security-oriented cultures, on the other hand, seek solutions with clear rules and preventative measures. The paradox is that cultures with a low tolerance for uncertainty may ignore the rules they’ve established, but feel better that the rule exists.

Long-term or Short-term Orientation
Is the culture more concerned with immediate profit or future benefits? This dimension gauges a culture’s temporal perspective. A short-term oriented society tends to emphasize immediate results and value free time. It focuses on the present while also respecting tradition. Conversely, long-term oriented cultures are concerned with the future, upholding traits like thrift and perseverance.

High or Low Context
Does the culture require indirect, implicit communication (high context) between individuals or a more direct and explicit approach (low context)? This dimension from Hall’s research explores the powerful effect that cultural conventions have on information exchanges, included its unstated rules and styles. In High context cultures (HCC), an understanding of unspoken rules of engagement is required, therefore indirect implicit communication is essential. In Low context cultures (LCC) a direct and explicit approach is key to cooperation between independent individuals.

Respecting Culture

New paradigms of knowledge creation have profoundly transformed our ways of working. Information is created corroboratively in a wide array of spaces around the world. Yet even as information technology has made the virtual world prominent, the physical space remains crucial in fostering trust, creativity, sharing information and shaping a company’s identity.

In addition, in the next decade, for the first time in 200 years, more economic growth is expected to come from emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia, India, China or South Africa, than from developed markets.* In this new global marketplace, work and workers are shifting locations, and working across organizations, time zones and physical/virtual spaces. As a result, cultures are colliding.

Business leaders, real estate professionals, architects and designers need new ways to think about how to design for global and local values.” People think and see the world differently because of differing ecologies, social structures, philosophies and educational systems that date back to ancient Greece and China and has survived in the modern world,” observes Richard E. Nisbett, codirector, Culture and Social Cognition, at the University of Michigan. Understanding the tension points between global rationalization and local identity is key to providing users globally with high performance work experiences.

Today’s interconnected economy requires extensive knowledge of the markets in which businesses operate. Understanding how the cultural issues translate into the workspace helps organizations to leverage the physical environment—an often under-utilized asset —in their efforts toward global integration. In fact, it can be a prerequisite to success. Ghemawat summed up the purpose of this research when he wrote: “For many companies, the greatest challenge may be fostering the human capacity to connect and cooperate across distances and differences, internally and externally. How much would your profitability increase if you could broaden circles of trust and cooperation across departments, countries, and business units so people really work together rather than against each other? What if your people could stretch their perspectives to care more deeply about customers, colleagues and investors? People can broaden their sympathies to bring them a little closer to us, with inspiring results.”

*The Great Rebalancing, McKinsey Quarterly, June 2010

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