Profit Minded

Five signs you are in a toxic office

Bad Office Culture

If you’ve been a cubicle-dweller any length of time, chances are you’ve experienced an office culture that stinks: Unhappy workers, cheerless managers, and a generally dismal vibe. And what is toxic for the office is toxic for you if you work in the environment.

Kevin Kuske, Chief Anthropologist and General Manager for office furniture company turnstone, tours the country studying small businesses that boast highly productive, well functioning workspaces. They’re inspiring, he says, “but the minute you leave them you start to see the inverse in others. Unfortunately, you don’t have to look too hard to find a bad work culture.”

Turnstone helps well-intentioned business leaders who’ve inadvertently established dysfunctional workplaces to transform their office environments. Based on his experience, Kuske says, “Culture is something you shape, not change. You can coax it, you can enable it. But you can’t flip a switch.”

If you’re a worker in a bad office culture, the good news is “managers don’t control the office culture,” Kuske says. Sure, they can influence it. But he believes an office culture is “owned by the people.”

Last month we got Kuske’s tips for “How to create a great small business workspace.” Here he shares some ideas for how to transform a bad culture to one where you’ll be happy to spend 8+ hours a day.

But first, Kuske says, you know your office culture is bad when:

1. Everyone there behaves with caution. If the people you work with watch carefully what they say, restrain how they act, or are cagey about what they share, “that should tell you there’s something wrong,” Kuske says. Ask yourself, do you feel you have to hold back instead of being honest in meetings and office conversations? People are more creative and innovative when they can be themselves at work, he says. A stuffy, stifling work environment stands in the way of progress. And a lack of trust and an overly cautious attitude rubs off easily, making it more likely you will act the same way. “Everybody and the business will benefit by being able to be more comfortable in their own skin at work.”

2. Employees are robotic drones. When individual personalities are shut down and everyone interacts on a safe, inside-the-box level, you won’t see a lot of energy or passion and you won’t get out-of-the-box ideas, Kuske says. This is another toxic attitude that can spread easily and it is also a good early warning sign for yourself. If you find yourself acting this way, it's a signal something is wrong. “To be creative, the first thing you’ve got to build in any business is trust: Trust that you can put yourself out there, and trust in your fellow worker,” he says. “Otherwise people keep all those ideas to themselves.”

3. You can’t glean any clues about the brand or the people behind it when you walk in the door. If you can tour four different offices without being able to tell the difference between them, you’ve got four cultures that are in trouble, Kuske says. This is even more true for individuals - if your co-workers can't tell you what the company stands for then you are in trouble. There's an easy way to tell if you are faced with this issue - can you easily and simply say what your company and office stand for? Can other people in your office do the same? A dynamic business backed by a passionate, energetic, and engaged workforce shouts at you from the reception desk.

4. There is a complete lack of fun. “Meaningful fun is about people connecting with each other,” Kuske says. And he believes those connections are crucial to creativity. He doesn’t mean your office has to have puppet shows or ping pong tables. If you never have any fun at work then it is a further sign you are in trouble. Fortunately this issue is easier to fix for an individual employee. And creating productive fun is contagious. Kuske points to one company that introduced levity by installing a central kitchen where twice weekly games, contests, or happy hours take place around the countertop. He has also seen a company that provides scooters for getting around a concrete warehouse, one that features a full-size NASCAR vehicle as office décor, and a Denver ski apparel company that hung old lift chairs face-to-face in the conference room. “If there is no evidence that people know how to have fun, or if it’s not acceptable to have fun, that’s a huge danger sign,” Kuske warns.

5. There’s no movement and little interaction. If people come to the office, go to their spot, and go home, the organization is not capturing the benefits that come from spontaneous interactions among its thinkers. If you never, ever have an interesting conversation with co-workers, that's a big problem. “When there are no water cooler chats or meetings popping up in the middle of the space, it’s a sign of a bad culture. You can walk in the door of an office like that and in 15 minutes see these things,” Kuske says.

How to overcome any of these impediments to operating a productive, innovative company?

“Some part of fixing this starts with recognizing the value in the physicality of a space, which is turnstone’s passion,” Kuske says. The physical design of a space plays a role in bringing people and technology together: “In the world of creative work that’s where co-creation happens,” he says.

If you’re the owner, he says, allow people to be creative. “There are owners who want this and they don’t know how to design the office in a way that gives the team permission.” Kuske suggests opening up spaces for group interactions, and then joining some of those impromptu gatherings so that everyone knows it’s permitted. “Leaders have to behaviorally show it’s OK, and the space needs to support that,” Kuske says.

If the space declares, “you have no right or ability to gather,” of course nobody will, he says. On the flip side, you can throw an open meeting space in the middle of the room, but nobody will use it if you haven’t given permission to. Kuske jokes, “This is the furniture guy saying ‘it’s not all about the furniture.’”

But if you’re the one sitting in the cubicle, with no clout to redesign the office or order new furniture, Kuske says, “You’ve got to build a case for change.” He suggests, “Paint pictures for management of companies that yours envies or feels competitive with.” (Or he says, take articles like this to your manager.)

When you’re immersed in a bad environment, it might feel enforced, but Kuske believes most workplaces wind up with a drone culture by default. “It’s an unintended consequence of no one breaking the mold; people assume that’s the way leadership wants things done.”

He suggests that a group of like-minded individuals can loosen the reins and bring about a culture change from the ground up. “You can start to chink away at it by organizing something like a ‘Wine Not Wednesday,’” Kuske says. “When work is done, everyone stays for an extra 45 minutes to socialize. Little things like that start to break down barriers.”

He shares an anecdote about a company that introduces its fun-loving attitude right at the job interview. When candidates get far enough through the selection process to meet the founder, he interviews them at the ping-pong table. The message is, “If you’re not OK with this, this is not the right place for you. If you are, this is the right place.” Kuske says, “It’s very deliberate on his part to set a tone, and to find the people who fit the culture.”

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