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Neil Usher|||
Neil Usher
03 May 2016

Virtual cuppa: Neil Usher with Tim Etherington

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As managing director of Gensler Shanghai and Seoul, Tim Etherington is a true globetrotter. In this month’s virtual chat he discusses cultural differences he has observed in the workplace

NEIL USHER: It’s natural that when we think and talk about workplace design we do so from a western European perspective. If we extend this, it’s often through experience in commercial centres that follow the model to a greater or lesser extent, such as Singapore. I’ve not chatted with anyone in the Virtual Cuppa series about the growing influence of markets such as China, where comfortable assumptions of our model of normality may not hold. Because, at the end of the day, all offices in China are outposts of western companies, right? Of course not. So what can we learn, in your experience, Tim, from how local organisations see the workplace?

TIM ETHERINGTON: In the past most of our projects have centred around migrating western companies, but in recent years we have seen more interest from local companies that are beginning to change their perceptions of the workplace environment. I believe this has come about as a consequence of China’s growing exposure to the global market and the change in the value equation from one of purely price and cost to a value proposition based on an emerging brand economy. This change is not unfamiliar for an emerging nation. This trajectory is fairly typical on the growth curve as the burgeoning middle class is exposed to new and different ways of conducting life as they fearlessly travel the world.

Tim Etherington, managing director of Gensler Shanghai and Seoul

NU: Are we seeing any trends that are discernible? It would be fascinating if ideas developed that rejected many of our standard notions of what a workplace is or does. Our perceptions are often unfairly skewed by stories such as that which emerged recently of a South Korean company nailing its managers into coffins, to encourage them to reflect on the positive aspects of their lives. Niche.

TE: Of course only the most drastic cases of cultural differences would make the headlines. But our research has shown that the nature of business in east Asia is really not all that different. The level of tolerance and expectation might be different, such as the urge to reach decisions based on consensus, or discomfort with confrontation. But this is a healthy challenge that allows us to innovate within the local context while also effecting change.

NU: So how are local organisations translating culture into workplace design? I was wondering if there are any insights that might track back into our western weltanschauung that might bring about a new panacea – because we love chasing panaceas over here, it’s a regional sport.

TE: New ideas are still in their infancy in China and many other Asia markets. CEOs and company leadership battle with the impending image changes associated with these ideas. Senior managers are struggling to loosen their stranglehold on individual offices as they are encouraged to embrace the open-plan workplace with a clear emphasis on the outward image of a flat structure – changes that could be associated with losing face. One expatriate executive we worked with elected to have a bench seat rather than the expected corner office in Shanghai, which made for interesting conversations when Chinese VIP clients or government officials visited. Sometimes that’s all it takes for things to shift, one oddity. Observing different practices opens your eyes to other possibilities, and it works both ways.

NU: Love the idea of doing something small but creating a massive ripple – like nudge theory. Any other examples?

TE: Meal time culture is something we can definitely emulate in the West. The average lunch break in China is around an hour and a half, which seems luxurious compared to a sandwich at your desk. Even if the team is on deadline, they will still gather in the pantry and eat together. Eating a sandwich alone at your desk would be tantamount to social suicide. This creates social adhesion in the office. It’s about developing guanxi (关系), a form of networking that builds trust.

NU: Keep going, Tim – these are great stories! Do you have any more examples?

TE: There’s napping. There’s a common saying in Chinese that goes: “Rest so that you can go further.” In practice, this can mean napping at work. It’s not at all unusual to see office workers taking a brief nap after their hour-and-a-half lunch, complete with neck pillows and eye masks. There’s no guilt or anxiety surrounding rest. Taoists believe one should be in harmony with nature – a distinct view of “work-life balance”.

NU: So where is all this heading? I’m wondering what the implications are for architecture and workplace design.

TE: There is an advantageous creative chaos in China. The labour market is becoming more knowledge and skill-oriented, and company culture is taking centre stage. The volatility of the market demands fast response and rapid reiteration. This in turn allows for more healthy experimentation. We’re also beginning to see a desire in China to express their own company values through the environments they occupy. An inspiring move away from the
zero-risk copycat mentality. As China develops its new-found creative confidence, brands will have to start taking leaps of faith, and diving into true innovation. I’m excited to be part of it.

NU: Well, it does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop. As Confucius would say.

What can we learn from the way other cultures use the workplace? Tell @workessence and @onofficemag

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