Workplaces are physical manifestations of a company’s culture. Kurt L. Darrow, chairman, president, and CEO of La-Z-Boy Incorporated, a furniture manufacturer based in Monroe, Michigan, says, “Space matters. Facilities matter when people are choosing where to work, where to go to school, how they can work, how they feel good.”
A company promoting a culture of high-paced innovation, creativity, and a sense of fun at work will find it hard to promote these values in a bland, gray, cubicle-filled workspace that likely saps employees’ energy rather than inspires employees to achieve creative breakthroughs. Similarly, an organization that has critical deadlines, highly technical work, and ultra-focused workers may not benefit from a workspace filled with video game consoles, ball pits, and office table tennis tournaments.
These are perhaps extreme examples, and yet they illustrate very clearly the importance of recognizing the physical role that workspaces play in curating a company’s culture.
Leading organizations recognize this fact. Business and HR leaders increasingly want to use workspace to foster their culture and attract the right type of employees. These business and HR leaders are thinking critically and acting intentionally on the work environment they want to cultivate. La-Z-Boy recognizes the power of workspace and completed a new corporate headquarters in 2015, designed to use space to attract the next generation employees. Darrow sees workspace as a way to articulate and signal a new way of working to the 8,300 employees of the company. During his 13-year tenure as chairman, president, and CEO, he transformed all facets of the company, increasing its competitiveness in the dynamic home furnishing marketplace, while repositioning the well-known La-Z-Boy brand among consumers.
Darrow summarizes his responsibilities into three categories: “Strategy, Capital, and Talent.” He explains, “If I get those three things right, the rest of my job is pretty easy. If I find myself doing something that is not related to those three principles, I am probably getting in the way of my team.” Building an employee-centric workspace is a long-term planning project. The space needs to be organic and flexible enough to facilitate future generational changes and shifts in working-style preferences. The workspace design should promote engagement and collaboration among employees. Darrow recognizes the critical role culture plays in the overall design. With its investment in a new corporate headquarters, La-Z-Boy sought to revolutionize its corporate culture. According to Lea Ann Knapp, the lead internal designer at the La-Z-Boy HQ project, the aim was to “bring a little bit of the past with us, but direct people to the present and the future.”
Darrow continues, “We design our headquarters for current and future employees who we hope will want to work here for the next 15 or more years. We talked to them all, they felt included and we listened.” He jokes, “After all, we only build a new corporate headquarters once every 90 years!” The company’s new Michigan-based headquarters houses up to 500 staff, the majority of La-Z-Boy’s corporate employees. It features an open-space design, large windows, and immense glass frontage, along with landscaped grounds with walking trails and backlit fountains. The campus environment is reminiscent of many high-tech companies in Silicon Valley; however, the headquarters is located in Monroe, the town in Michigan where the company was founded 90 years ago.
The design of the company’s new headquarters recognizes that employees expect different ways of working. In response, the space incorporates “niche places” where employees can do their work. There’s an explicit lack of seating or office assignment to combat territorial thinking and silo departments. The open-seating philosophy encourages employees to get out, be seen, and collaborate with coworkers. La-Z-Boy also provides employees with the choice to work at a desk that can convert to a standing desk at the push of a button. In some rooms there are even desks with walking treadmills underneath, for those who wish to talk on a conference call or type while they walk.
La-Z-Boy created conference rooms and workrooms that employees can book to do the work they need. There are multiple room formats, ranging from one-person rooms—where people can focus on their individual work— to larger meeting rooms designed for group collaboration about new furniture designs and innovative business models. This innovative approach allows the company to break away from the unwritten rule of conference rooms only being used for meetings. The company complex also features coffee bars, a genius bar–style IT support area called Tech Deck, and outdoor seating patios, complete with Wi-Fi and piped music for ambience.
La-Z-Boy’s executives recognized that reframing the culture of a 90-year-old home furniture business was a change management process beyond their experience and competencies. La-Z-Boy partnered with Steelcase, a fellow Michigan-based firm, to help transition to its new headquarters.
Deep-rooted behaviors and everyday barriers are hard to revamp, but for La-Z-Boy, the challenges were worth overcoming. “I am positive . . . that if we did not have the new facility [the people we recently hired] would have passed on us,” says Darrow. “Do not ever underestimate the influence physical structures have on culture.”
From The Future Workplace Experience: 10 Rules for Mastering Disruption in Recruiting and Engaging Employees, by Jeanne C. Meister and Kevin J. Mulcahy.