By Lucia Shorr - 19th May, 2021
After months working at home on Zoom—dogs barking in the background of meetings and never having to wear work shoes—going back to the office is bound to be an adjustment. What role can brand and cultural experience play in easing the transition and supporting workplace success going forward?
The most effective workplaces and organizations are strengthened by the unifying ties of culture and branding, which come from widespread buy-in. Maintaining cultural cohesion and brand image has been difficult during a pandemic that has separated us from shared spaces, which is where typically culture was cultivated and branding was displayed. Thus, in the wake of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and the potential of an imminent return to in-office work, we hosted “Experience and Brand in a Hybrid Workplace,” to engage in the discussion of a hybrid workplace future and navigating the maintenance of culture and external and internal branding without a succinct work style or location.
Moderator Amy Rosen, Sociospatial Designer at PLASTARC, described this transforming half-digital world as “an opportunity to rethink the workplace; to optimize our current experience; to look at return to office through a new lens that is more equitable and inclusive; to look at teleworking and physical space as being in harmony with each other.” Rosen also emphasized the need for collaboration, sustainability, and wellness.
Panelists participating in this discussion were Wendy Gerber, CEO focusing on Strategy and Branding at International Consulting Group; Stedman Halliday, UX Designer at Wunderman Thompson and Special Faculty (instructor) at CalArts; and Darrick Borowski, Architect, Design Strategist, and Studio Professor at the School of Visual Arts.
Pre-COVID, the architecture of spaces provided ways to display brand imagery, and offices encouraged a collective culture both by providing space for interpersonal development and engagement and through physical displays of value. Apparel company Hollister, for example, plastered its walls with logos and pictures of beaches, and they sprayed stores floor to ceiling in signature Hollister perfume. Regardless of your knowledge of trendy teenage brands in the 2010s before walking into the store, you left understanding the exact demographic that both worked and shopped at the store.
Now we are confronted with the question articulated by Borowski: “How do we create those digital experiences that reflect who we are as a brand?” This is an exciting opportunity, as translating the spatial experience to the digital space will only further enable strong teams to thrive. However, all panelists firmly agreed that the creation of this digital space—and of all brand experiences in general—cannot be dictated by the leader or designer, but must be reflected in the employee or consumer experience. Space is not just about a physical area, and in terms of culture creation, a communication environment can seed a space with cultural norms and leave the potential for people to create their own meaning.
Leading with purpose has become a core strategy of brand display since the start of the pandemic. Clothing companies moved to producing masks, for example, displaying a critical ability to pivot that will define success in the “new normal” according to Gerber. Yet, as participatory branding becomes increasingly popular using platforms such as Twitter and TikTok, the lines of influence between trend, brand transparency, and audience participation have become blurred. Rather than a brand promoting their values, marketing has become about building relationships. As brands and organizations attempt to be relatable and appeal to trend-controlling audiences, it is important to “walk the talk” in terms of this leading purpose. Claims of social impact or sustainability, for example, must be backed up.
A learning curve is inevitable. Rather than experimenting in fear, Halliday suggests thinking of the exploration of new techniques as walking around the beach with a metal detector. Walk around trying different areas until you find something that accelerates you and your organization. See what people like, he says “Try having team Zoom backgrounds. Explore a communication channel for random chatter and daily greetings. Test new codes of conduct”. Ultimately, it is not physical but emotional space that people need to grow. And the workspace should be seen as a space in which work is just one of many productive endeavors.
It is not productivity that is marginally increased at the office but employee experience and progress. We go to work for the people. The place we go matters as it creates the vehicle for these interactions, but how can we work to make those participating virtually be equally valued? Creating a solely virtual or in-person community is much simpler than a hybrid one, which requires balancing meetings with individuals both in person and offsite. Equalizing access to office buzz, educational space and general is going to be the challenge of 2021 and beyond, outlines Borowski. Natural social, promotional, and emotional benefits are going to be inherent to the in-office experience, which needs to be closely managed in terms of accounting for additional inequalities that may come as a result of office access difficulties for various demographics.
Creating virtual teams, relationships, and cultural values that correlate with branding must be enabled by creative approaches to unprecedented challenges. Applications, such as Discord or Icebreaker, can recreate casual informal office conversations and the sense of having shared whiteboards on which to brainstorm. These digital interfaces expand the world of possibility and allow brands to think differently about how they are enabling people to work.