A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 13: Place

Posted on September 13, 2017 3:12 pm by | Internal | A Model for Employee Communication

A New Model for Employee Communication: Part 13: Place

This is the latest installment in a series of posts exploring a new model of employee communication, one designed to deliver measurable results that demonstrate the impact on the organization in ways that matter to leaders.

Revised Employee Communication Model

The series:
Part 1: Introduction Part 7: Channels
Part 2: Overview Part 8: Culture
Part 3: Alignment Part 9: Vision/Mission
Part 4: Listening Part 10: Values
Part 5: Consultation Part 11: Practices
Part 6: Branding Part 12: People

The four overlapping circles at the center of the model represent the best opportunities for employee communication to affect an organization on a day-to-day basis. With this post, we’ll wrap up the discussion of the various elements of culture with an examination of the importance of place.

The culture component of the new model for employee communicationThe environment emloyees work in shapes culture, from the locale of the workplace to the art (or lack thereof) on the walls.


Locale affects culture of a variety of reasons. A lot of the people hired in a company come from the local area; lower-paying jobs, especially production-level and administrative positions, rarely include relocation in the package. While each company located in Silicon Valley has its own culture (working at PayPal is different from working at Electronic Arts), there is a definite Silicon Valley vibe that runs through every Valley company. When Conagra Brands started out as Nebraska Consolidated Mills back in 1919, its Omaha home contributed to the culture right up through its name change to ConAgra Foods in 1971 and on until last year, when the company rebranded again and shifted headquarters to Chicago. Omaha is still home to most Conagra employees, but something of that culture has changed with so many decision-makers now operating out of one of America’s biggest cities.

Conagra’s communicators no doubt explored culture continuity when relocating its headquarters to another city.

MAN DT Instagram photo from DubaiEven companies with global operations have a sense of place. MAN Diesel & Turbo is headquartered in Augsburg, Germany, but has far-flung operations. In order to establish a sense of place, the Digital Communications Manager Tanja Kjærside invited employees to share photos of something unique about their local culture to a private Instagram account, using a common hashtag. From the hundreds of photos that employees contributed, the company published a coffee table book that created a mosaic of the company as a whole. Every employee got a copy of the book. One manager was so taken with it that he had the images enlarged and papered the cafeteria walls of his location with them, reminding his staff that they were part of a bigger culture.

The approach MAN took is just one way a company can unify a culture when it has facilities in multiple locations, but make no mistake: The culture at an office in Austin will not be exactly the same as one in Manhattan, no matter how strong the other elements of the culture are. Location matters. In fact, recruiters filling higher-level positions will either use location as a way to attract the best talent or, if the job isn’t in one of the best places in the world, downplay it or tout advantages the candidate may not have considered. I remember talking to recruiters at a hospital in a remote town who convinced doctors to work there by explaining what a great place it is to raise kids, and how it’s so safe nobody locks their doors.

The Work Environment

Pixar's AtriumIf your company values collaboration, it’s a bad idea to isolate employees based on their disciplines. That was the original plan at Pixar’s design campus: computer scientists would be in one building, animators in another, and everybody else in yet another. Steve Jobs, who bought Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986, was a collaboration zealot and envisioned an environment where unplanned encounters could take place, including a huge atrium that serves as the Pixar campus’s central hub.

Collaboration was also on the mind of Allergan’s chief science officer when I worked there as director of Corporate Communications. When designing a new R&D building, Les Kaplan had all the hallway walls covered in dry erase board material with dry mark pens and erasers available wherever two scientists happened to bump into each other. Conversations could turn into diagrams or equations rather than fade into nothing.

Office space also reflects a culture. When I worked at ARCO, then CEO Robert O. Anderson was a modern art fan; in fact, he was chairman of the Aspen Art Institute for many years and was responsible for the “stairway to nowhere” sculpture (actual title: Double Ascension) by Herbert Bayer in the plaza between Los Angeles’s twin highrise buildings at Fifth and Flower. Thus, it wasn’t energy-related images on the walls of the ARCO Tower; it was pricey artwork (pricier the higher up you got).

Red Door Pinterest pinboardOn the flip side, when Red Door Interactive, a marketing and advertising agency, moved to new offices in San Diego, it opened a Pinterest pinboard to employees and invited them to share images that reflected the interior design they’d like in their new work environment. Zappos’ Las Vegas headquarters is an open space with short-wall cubicles, but employees are able to personalize their cubes with a high degree of freedom, which reflects a culture mightily different from one in which employees are restricted from even putting a picture on a cube wall or a knick-knack on their desks.

Think about what a dull, uninspiring workplace says to employees about how much the company actually values them. Imagine what it does to your employer brand when prospects come to the office for an interview. What your workplaces look like speaks more to culture than you might think.

Communicating Place

Employee communicators may not have much influence over where employees work or office interior design, but we can help connect place to culture. Tanja Kjærside’s Instagram campaign and Red Door Interactive’s Pinterest pinboard are two examples of communicating place to employees with culture firmly in mind.

Unlike the other dimensions of culture we’ve covered in this series like vision and values, though, you can’t search Google and find a cache of articles and studies about place and how to communicate it. In all honesty, as I think back over my career, I can’t recall many communications that focused on place other than photo essays and videos that conveyed a workplace to employees situated elsewhere. I can, however, imagine some approaches to include in your communication mix:

  • Share designer and architect renderings of planned facilities
  • Talk to Facilities staff about how they work to align place and culture, then create content assets based on what you learn
  • Report on demonstrations of pride in location, including city-focused activities in which the company and its employees participate and how the location is reflected in faciity design and decoration
  • Share images from the company’s history that connect the company and its location
  • Consider a communication strategy that works to overcome a local culture that contradicts the culture the company is trying to embed
  • Provide feedback from employees (giving them a voice) when the company is planning a radical shift in workplace design, such as moving away from or toward an open architecture.
  • When the company settles on a new workplace design, communicate the reasons why the decision was made and provide a forum through which employees can ask questions and express their concerns
  • Develop a comprehensive strategy to address relocations to avoid a disruption or deterioration of the company’s culture

What am I missing? How do you communicate place in your organization?

The next installment of this series will begin a review of the second circle of the model, engagement, and its four core drivers, a strategic narrative, engaging managers, employee voice, and organizational integrity.

The graphics for this series were created by Brian O’Mara-Croft.

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