International Office Layouts
Differences in the New Global Workplace
- Autocratic vs. Consultative: Little communication and collaboration between workers of different levels, as opposed to highly collaborative environments where workers help make decisions
- Individualist vs. Collectivist: Self-sufficiency and independence, versus emphasis on the group and harmony
- Masculine vs. Feminine: Competition vs. harmony
- Tolerant of Uncertainty vs. Security Oriented: Flexible and open to change, versus being detail oriented and married to structure
- Low Context vs. High Context: Direct communication versus emphasis on more subtle cues, such as body language and other subtexts
- Short Term vs. Long Term: Fewer investments and faster returns, in contrast with longer investments and company longevity
Three Representative Companies
The eleven countries were divided into three different groupings, based on their similarities: China, India, Russia, and Morocco; France, Italy, and Spain; and the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, and Germany. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll focus on some of these countries using only three of the categories above.
China scored as being more autocratic and more collective and needing higher context. The Chinese are very conscious of hierarchy, and as a result, workers are placed together in one space, while executives and other higher-level employees get their own separate, spacious offices. China scored as the most collectivist of the 11 countries. As a result, alternative workspaces are just now being introduced, and workers are accustomed to working in more concentrated space.
Spain falls nearer the middle on the autocratic/consultative and individualist/collectivist spectrums. The offices there and other countries like it mean that the space isn’t so unevenly divided as it is in China. Executives have smaller offices, giving workers more room to roam in their own spaces. Spain also scored as the second-most security oriented country behind Russia, meaning that office rooms should be used for their intended purpose, instead of impromptu meetings or other unexpected uses.
The U.S. has more liberal policies, so its offices see a mixture of workers at different levels all in the same room. The U.S. scored as more consultative, more individualistic, and low context. But in spite of the equalizing practices in the offices, a need for space means that options such as telecommuting and hoteling are popular. The U.S. focuses more on short-term investments and activity, meaning that offices should be designed so that workers can jump easily between collaborative and independent projects.
The researchers placed each country on the spectrum for each category, leading to the following insights:
Most Tolerant of Uncertainty: Great Britain
British workers are accustomed to dealing with change and surprises. They work best in spaces that allow them to be creative and collaborative. Fittingly, Great Britain also scored as the most consultative.
Most Autocratic: Russia
In Russia, workspaces are flexible, allowing each worker to complete tasks in whatever environment he or she finds most suitable.
Most Masculine: Italy
The culture here is one of assertiveness and competition. Italians value hierarchy, so status symbols like private offices are key. Collaborative spaces typically hold no decorations.
Most Feminine: Netherlands
Rather than showing the same concern with hierarchy as Italians, people in the Netherlands instead focus on harmony and equality.
What are the implications for your own office? Besides telling you what sort of office to design if you open a branch overseas, the study is also helpful for teaching workers how to conduct themselves when meeting with people from other cultures. For example, since the Chinese are such a high-context group, videoconferencing is a great means of communicating with them. Through video, they’ll be able to see important visuals, such as where your company’s workers are seated in the room, and what sort of things they’re saying with their body language. In a low context country such as Germany, on the other hand, communication is more direct, and workers needn’t worry so much about how they relay a message.
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