How workplace culture is intentionally created—both good and bad

Running a business isn’t just about having a good idea and running with it. For a business to grow and thrive, it has to generate a productive and team-oriented workspace through a series of intentional decisions in technology, management, leadership, and even physical space.

To learn more about the integration of all these disparate concepts to create a healthy workplace, we spoke to Steve Polo, managing partner at OPX.

ABERMAN: You started out as an architect, I believe. How did your view of the workforce, and workplace, change as you performed this role, and how does it inform how you approach building work environments today?

POLO: You know, that’s really interesting. I did start as an architect, and as we designed spaces for people, we asked a bunch of questions about how many of this they needed, and how many of that they needed. And we kind of pretended to think that the work we were doing was actually helping them have better businesses. The truth is, we never asked what a better business meant. And so, as we started to think about what we weren’t doing, we said, well, what are the questions unasked? So. we ask questions now about culture, about technology, about operations.

And so the question really is, you know, companies don’t really want a space. They want to work better. So, when you start thinking about all the things that are required to help companies work better, I mean, it’s a huge palette of things to ask. And then you actually have to be able to translate those into something that can be used, and deliver those kinds of results.

ABERMAN: So, for example, if I’m managing an organization and I want people to be more team-oriented, I probably don’t want to have offices that give the biggest offices to the big muckety mucks, and have the underlings in crappy little offices, or I want to make sure that I’m using technology to connect people, things like that, right?

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POLO: Yes, but the physical environment is an enabler, it’s not a determinant, and it’s only a determinant if it causes harm. So if you really want to increase teaming, then you need to talk about what teaming does for your strategy, because if you can’t figure out how to team inside your own organization, it doesn’t matter what you build. People won’t know how to do it. And so, you might increase the likelihood it would happen, but you certainly won’t guarantee it’ll happen.

ABERMAN: How did this change happen for you? Was it an “aha” moment? You finished an engagement, you walked away, and you thought, geez, I really didn’t help the client with their objectives? What was it?

POLO: It was a lot of things. Initially, it was talking with a systems integrator who was doing technology installations for folks, and his clients were asking him, so, you know, there’s some physical stuff going on here too, right? And he said, yeah, but I don’t really know what that is. And he and I happened to know each other for quite a while, and we started talking about the intersection between technology and the physical environment.

And as we started to think more about that, we thought, well, the problem in all of these kinds of things, not just how space is built, but how businesses operate in general, is that they aren’t integrated. So, they have a technology piece, and they go do their thing over there, and they have a human resource, a human capital, and a people piece, all that over there. They have a physical environment, they do that over there, and they all do their jobs perfectly, and they stick that stuff together, and it works. But it only works because it has to.

And that’s why people do heroic stuff to get their jobs done. You see it every single day. And that’s because nobody pays attention to how those things are actually connected. And so, that was a revelation. We said, oh my goodness this is a problem of integration, not a problem of doing any one thing right or wrong.

ABERMAN: You know, when I talk with people in my daily lives around corporate culture, this is a misapprehension many people have. They think corporate culture emerges. And I actually think corporate culture results from a series of intentional acts. And it sounds to me like that’s what you’re describing. If I’m listening to this, and I’m a business owner, what are some of the things that you would really encourage me to think about from the standpoint of building an intentionally productive work environment?

POLO: Most organizations, companies know what they do. They rarely know how they do it. And I mean, at the granular level. They expect all this stuff to get done, but when they really have to tell you, well, here’s what we do and how we do it, it’s unclear. And so, from the top down, it’s that they know what we’re doing, but they don’t know how we’re doing it.

From the bottom up, they know how we’re doing it, but they don’t know why we’re doing. And so, it’s kind of a mutually reinforcing, or a mutually defeating kind of thing. So, one of the things I’d urge business owners to do is, develop some way, or find somebody who can help them, understand how they currently operate, and help them compare that to their aspirational operations, because that’s where the work has to happen. And when that happens, intent shows up

ABERMAN: So, you use technology, how you apply technology, what the office looks like, where people are situated, how people are compensated, all these things together in concert, to get to the right outcome?

POLO: That’s right.

ABERMAN: So, turning our attention now to another group of people: I know you do a lot of work here in town as a mentor, and you’ve helped a lot of young people along the way. When somebody comes to you and says, hey, I’m trying to figure out how to start my career, build my career, what’s the most important secret to success that you share with them?

POLO: Would you please tell me what you think that is? Because I could use that. No, it’s interesting, because I’m not a particularly good model. And I say that because I spent a fair amount of time searching for the right thing to do. I tell people I kind of stumbled uncontrollably into the truth, and found it, but it took me a long time.

And I don’t give that advice to people because it’s not particularly productive. But I do tell them: many people come to me and I ask them, so, if you have an opportunity in front of you, how will you decide if it’s the right thing? And most people don’t have that decision criteria lens. They say something like, well, that’s a good question. Or they say, well, you know, I don’t know, I’ll just know it when I see it. Well, maybe!

So, I urge people who come to me about that to say, look, put down a list of things that are most important to you, and use that as a lens. Because the minute it’s visible, you can use it to test whatever it is you’re trying to do. Doesn’t matter if it’s a career, if it’s moving somewhere, it doesn’t matter what it is. And so, that’s kind of the number one advice I give people.

ABERMAN: Yeah. If you don’t know what winning means to you. How do you know when you’ve won?

POLO: Exactly.

ABERMAN: Well, Steve, thanks very much for taking the time with us today. It’s been really helpful, and the advice you’ve given, I’m sure, is going to be valuable to many people. Steve Polo, managing partner of OPX.

POLO: Thanks, Jonathan.

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