By Bailey Penrose
My first job out of college involved an office full what felt like an endless maze of cubicles. This particular company had a fun little slogan for employee promotion, “working toward the light”, as the high-ranking employees got actual offices that were cream carpeted, lit with warm yellow light, and located next to the windows. As a lowly intern, my cubical was about 5 rows in from a window and I was one of the lucky ones – at least I had a tantalizing glimpse of daylight bouncing off the ceiling along with the fluorescent strip lighting. My manager, who was tall enough to see over the cubicle walls, would stand and crane his neck to give me periodic weather updates out of pity for my diminutive size.
A couple of things to learn from this anecdote: 1) it pays to be aware of commonly used phrases in your company as they give a good glimpse of the company culture, the good AND the bad, 2) office environment does factor in to employee satisfaction as well as productivity.
Let’s dive into the first issue, phrases that are used in-company that hint at culture. “Working toward the light” started as a joke, even the executives who had achieved the pinnacle of interior lighting used it when meeting new employees. What the management team may not have realized is that the jokiness of the phrase did not last and instead started to draw attention to a perceived inter-office class system. That sounds dramatic, but the saying had stopped implicitly sounding like “work hard and you too can achieve this really awesome office space” and instead started sounding like “management doesn’t care and won’t even give me a fricken’ lamp”. The phrase had become a kernel of contention and no one in the C-Suite was having a light-bulb moment. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
Culture expresses itself in attitudes and behaviors that are reinforced on a daily basis. Because culture is an ongoing thing that happens constantly it’s really hard to call out flashpoints. Companies should focus on culture markers (shared values, goals, and language) as a way to gauge employee engagement, and ultimately the bottom line. Communication and trust are essential to course correcting. Employees want to feel like their employer hears them and know that they won’t be penalized for voicing a concern. A positive office culture is a major driver in successful organizations.
Let’s look at the second issue, office environment and its effect on employees. I think everyone understands that it’s not feasible or cost-effective for a company to remodel their entire office plan so that all employees get a window, a standing desk, a top-of-the-line air purifier, what-have-you. However, there have been studies that show correlation between light and an employee’s productivity (please reference the articles listed below). Small efforts on a company’s part to improve their employee’s workspace will go a long way to fostering good will internally as well as driving up productivity thanks to focused employees. Some options may include the employer reimbursing $20 for a desk lamp or HappyLight, setting up a communal computer station where employees could stand to work when they wanted, or ensuring that at least one conference/lunch/break room had access to natural light. Effort, small or large, can be rewarded in big ways.