Location, environment and culture

Andrew Phipps • 15/07/2020

Location, location, location, to steal the title of the eponymous long running Channel 4 series, is what it’s all about…or perhaps not. Coming out of lockdown location of course remains of critical importance, but perhaps not in the way you might think. Location in this context is very much about the location of people as opposed to property. 

Where will people be when they carry out their work, when they shop, when they decide what to eat or drink? This is the critical consideration we need to be addressing right now. As we become ever more location (physical place) agnostic, the relationship between people and place becomes ever more important and the location of people and property will change depending on the task to be undertaken.  

Many commentators have addressed the seemingly pointless exercise of going somewhere to do something that you can do equally as well from the comfort of your home. Others will stress the importance of being able to collaborate, to spend time with colleagues and they are absolutely correct…once we hit a point where we can have a quorum of people in one location and there is flexibility regards how the space is used.  

Taking the decision to change your personal location should be based on the task at hand. Where is the optimum place for you to be for a particular activity? Can buildings adapt to accept this new way of thinking? The answer should focus less on whether they can and more on can they remain relevant if they don’t. A visit to a building has to become an event, in the most positive of meanings, a reason to go the office workplace (beyond commuting to a different location just to have a Teams call with people in other places), a retail and leisure location that offers something that my online perusing cannot satisfy.   

Optimising the building’s purpose can only be achieved if we address the environment people find when they arrive. How does this environment suit the needs of the activity I want / need to perform? You need the building environment to be adaptable enough to allow a series of different tasks to be fulfilled. Traditional workspaces become event driven space, not as in events for 500 people but events as in activity. They need to offer space that can perform a starring role in the need to collaborate. The space has to energise and the environment work for a multitude of needs. The challenge of adjusting space to take account of different day parts has long been of interest in the retail and hospitality arena. From the use of bars in New York as coworking space until the evening when the space takes back its traditional purpose through to the use of moveable walls and modular furniture. This isn’t new thinking. It is however the right time for this thinking. The environment of a building has to work to deliver for the needs of an individual.  

The final piece of this trichotomous discussion is the topic that is taking the energy of many; culture. If location is about people, and environment is about configuration of a space to allow people to undertake specific tasks, how do you instil a sense of corporate culture? An important part of working for a business is understanding what they stand for, what their ethos is. Millennials and Generation Z are often vaunted as the particular demographic that desire the opportunity to work for a company with meaning, one with a clear purpose. Is that purpose or meaning somehow lessened if you interact on a more virtual than physical basis?  

There is a need to review what the culture of a business actually means. The phrase ‘workplace culture’ entered the popular lexicon of business speak many years ago but how would it be defined? Workplace culture has its fundamental premise in the environment a business creates for its employees. As employers are increasingly expected to curate a virtual environment the culture must take its lead from a different set of formative factors. The perceived culture determines the way people feel about working for one business over another. The culture is created from the very first instance of applying for a role, through the interview process, onboarding and formally joining the business. Every touchpoint has role to play in making the culture either feel more empowering or alternatively detracting in how someone feels in their role.  

If we do move into a period of remote working, no matter how many days a week this may be, the way the business maintains its culture becomes increasingly important. Business culture will come to be judged not only on what the business stands for but how the business embraces flexibility and pivots toward doing what’s right for employees as well as for profitability. No company operates in a vacuum and people take a view of the sector, of others in a similar physical location and makes their decision according to what they see and in turn how they feel about this.  
One company may enable their team to work from wherever they deem most conducive to completing the task at hand. The same company supports individuals with a stipend to create an ergonomic working environment and perhaps implements training that recognises the difference between remote first and office first working styles and outcomes. The view of this company would be in stark contrast to one that insisted on presentism and ignored the early part of this year as an anomaly and not a learning experience. The interpretation of their respective cultures would be plain to see; one is forward looking, supportive and wants me to give of my best and the other has been weighed, measured and found wanting.  

It’s easy to take this a step forward and recognise which business is the more attractive to a potential recruit, to an established team member and to someone looking to achieve a work life balance (it’s not the one that insists you sit at a fixed desk from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday).  

Location – where people are and where they want to be when they undertake specific tasks 
Environment – the layout, design, style of a building that empowers people to deliver 
Culture – what a business does to recruit, retain and develop individuals  

Each of the three have changed as a result of context. Understanding the context is paramount, the how, the when and the where will evolve. Being able to interpret how people contextualize the situation they are operating in is where you should be focusing your energy as we progress to a new way of working, and indeed a new way of being. 

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