Symbols that create a culture

Whenever I visit a prospective or new client I find myself looking around the place with my eyes wide open. I love sitting in reception areas, watching people – the way they interact with each other, with visitors, with the receptionist. I love looking at the environment and the symbols that begin to describe the culture of each organisation. And as I start my process of observations I wonder how much thought and effort each organisation puts in to these symbols. Let me explain what I mean………

In a series of visits to one client my understanding of their culture has grown, mainly through the symbols that I’ve observed.

First impressions at reception were of a bustling, professional, modern, people focused business. The triggers that created this impression for me were down to the welcome I received at the reception desk, observing the way workers greeted each other walking in to the building, the design of the reception area and the noise and smells coming from the cafe based just beyond the reception area. My first meeting was then held in a bright, modern room and as I walked through the office I noticed bright space, lots of photos, posters and objects that represented the work done by the people on that floor.

My impression of the culture, based on these symbols was of a modern, bustling and people focused business.

Several weeks later, with several visits to different parts of the office, I see symbols of the culture which are very contradictory.

The first contradiction, is the different environments that exist floor by floor, function by function. What I described on my first visit seems to be isolated to that particular area. In other parts of the business I see different desk lay outs – some looking as though they haven’t changed for 20 years and some being incredibly modern. What is coming through in the culture of the organisation is that all these different parts of the business, with their different working environments, work as separate entities. Whilst they are all sitting in the same building, working under the same corporate name there is nothing obvious that holds them together as one company.

Another symbol that has fascinated me in this and other offices, are the kitchens. First impression in this particular office is of a modern area with a space for people to meet and chat and prepare their food – it seemed to reinforce a people culture. On the first day, when I was going to spend some time in the business my client gave a cursory nod of the head as we walked past the kitchen and said “This is the kitchen if you need it” After I settled in to a desk (another symbol of the culture) I went to find a glass of water from the kitchen – only to find a kitchen with no glasses, no cups, no tea, no coffee and no utensils. I asked what this was about and was told that it’s meant to be environmentally better for people to bring their own things. And it would seem that visitors are meant to go thirsty.

My experience of the office layout and the kitchen environment began to create a perspective of the culture of this organisation. My point here is really about consciousness – are the leaders and decision makes conscious of the symbols that communicate? Are they making decisions based on the culture that they want to create or are the symbols contradictory to and therefore damaging other efforts to develop the organisations culture?


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