Rex Miller knows culture. As the author of the widely popular book, “Change Your Space, Change Your Culture,” he has been praised as a practical visionary and proven leader who knows how to make change happen.
BOS connected with Rex to find out what makes a workspace great. Here’s what we learned.
BOS: In your book, you talk about the importance of cracking the code for workplace disengagement and how organizations are often challenged to quickly adapt to changing business demands. Why do companies often fail to “break the code” and develop effective workplace cultures?
Rex: Companies fail to break the code for a variety of reasons.
Few companies pay attention or curate their culture. Companies often confuse communication plans, town hall meetings, vision/values training, creating artifacts and company social events as their culture initiative. Most of this only touches the surface. Culture is made up of the hidden values, attitudes, habits and behaviors that really run the place. It is the difference between what patrons experience at a restaurant and what happens in the kitchen. Companies focus on front of house and miss the kitchen or locker room behavior.
The second reason efforts fail is that companies often do not identify the few distinct behaviors that reflect their signature. Employees are easily distracted from the key signals that really make the difference. Red Hat offers a great example of what it should look like. They have a value called Transparency. It is linked with a habit they call Default to Open. The translation is that when management discusses a direction or issue, it will be shared with the rest of the team unless there is a compelling reason to hold off.
A third reason is incongruity between what management says and how they behave. This is the “walk the talk” challenge.
The three keys are clear, compelling, and congruent behaviors.
BOS: You use the analogy that having a great house does not mean you have a home. How should businesses approach workspace planning to ensure they do not just get a great workspace, but also a workplace that embodies the business and people within?
Rex: Involve them within a framework of parameters and constraints. Even though there is a budget and footprint parameters, tapping into their voice and providing choice is key. We noticed that a social and engaging process creates a social and engaging outcome.
BOS: What is the staying power of culture? It’s a hot topic now, but will it still be in ten years?
Rex: Every organization (and family) has a culture. The only difference is whether it is by design or by default.
BOS: You often warn executives to avoid the structural detachment of leadership. How can companies begin breaking down the legacy of vertically constructed departmental workplaces?
Rex: If leaders want to break down silos they will need to first set the example and move into the same environment as everyone else. They will need to conduct some deep ethnographic analysis. What is a day in the life of our employees? They need to make visible the invisible.
They can then begin to take note of the behaviors that reflect the best of what they want to become. They will also discover behaviors that get in the way and can look at how factors like management behavior and environment reinforce or sanction the constraining behaviors. They can design an environment that reinforces new behaviors while breaking up some of the old habits and routines that have become inertia to growth.
BOS: How can employees who might not be making space decisions help to shift or change a company’s culture?
Rex: Begin the conversation with other like-minded employees. Ask questions like “What is our culture?,” “What are the positive aspects of our culture?,” and “What gets in the way?”. Awareness is the first step. Looking for pilot projects and low hanging fruit to experiment is the second step. Finding management or leadership who appreciates and can champion the culture conversation is a third piece to the strategy.
BOS: At a Google leadership summit, you discussed the fascinating idea of “scaling the magic”. How do the six intelligences described in your interview with Marcia Zidle relate to a company’s ability to preserve tradition and heritage while effectively changing their space and culture for the better?
Rex: The six intelligences really boil down to hard skills (finance, marketing, operation, sales…) and soft skills (emotional intelligence, culture, engagement…) Companies excel and focus on the hard skills. They virtually ignore (or assign to some department) the soft skills. They need to be balanced and integrated throughout for effectiveness.
BOS: You have partnered with Haworth to promote the importance of space and culture. How is their approach to workspace environments different?
Rex: The ones that see space and furniture as a proxy for a company’s values get it. The ones who are just looking for another trick to sell another chair, cubicle or wall do not.