Atmosphere matters. Just as pressure systems, high winds and extreme temperatures can collide to create violent storms, just the right calmness and moderate temperatures can combine to provide a perfect day. A work environment is no different. If you are looking to drive your team to better outcomes or simply aren’t seeing the results you would like, you have to honestly look at yourself and ask the question: am I creating the environment for success?
An organization’s culture and atmosphere is made up of a complex mix of important factors that combine to give employees and others the daily “feel” of the place. Leaders drive many of those factors such as: the tone at the top, positive employee engagement, an aspirational vision, a passion for the mission, attracting talented high performers and even creating constructive conflict. All of those things impact the work environment. Those, and many others, can and often are a major priority for leaders. They are thought about in strategic planning sessions and retreats. They are the subject of articles, books and conferences. However, one crucial aspect of the workplace—atmosphere—is often ignored.
Physical Space Matters
When I arrived at the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director’s Office (MDO), the office had an interesting look and feel. Something best described as government circa 1965. It’s not that it wasn’t warm, because the people clearly made it that way, but it didn’t speak to the organization’s mission or priorities. You could have been in any generic government office in any city. I felt that right away and wanted a change.
I wanted the MDO to be about making our City, and the lives of our citizens, better. I wanted a diverse, vibrant and energetic workplace to reflect that and I wanted our priorities to be obvious to all. Not just to our employees but also to every single visitor. So today, when you walk through our reception area you find it covered by over-sized, vibrant photos of our City’s great murals. They are colorful and uplifting and uniquely Philadelphia. Before taking a seat, you notice a stand-alone wall with a nearly four-foot long map of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Of course the total number, the various boundaries and the many names for those neighborhoods are open to debate, but that’s okay– that’s uniquely Philly too.
Should you walk a few steps forward, you would be in my personal office. Colorful pictures, plaques and mementos line these walls with a brilliant interspersing of children’s artwork. You see pictures of my family. You also see pictures of some of my heroes and news articles of some of our team accomplishments signed by members of my team.
A leader’s office is a special place. It is the seat of leadership no matter the organization. It should communicate your priorities, celebrate excellence and speak of your leadership journey. It can also make a statement.
I never understood those leaders who thought they were sending the message that it was “all about the work” by sitting in a non-descript even Spartan office. Sometimes even devoid of pictures of their loved ones (sending the message that they don’t care about family) in offices that not only failed to inspire, but send the message that this place is impersonal and cold.
In government, senior positions can come with an egg timer, one that runs for 4-8 years or less depending on the average life of a role. Many senior positions, because of the demands, family sacrifices, and pace of the role, tend to have a shelf-life. For example, many of my predecessors have served as Managing Director for roughly 2-3 years. I wanted to send the message, even if it’s implicit, that I was going to be here awhile, was going to be a change agent, and that if you were thinking you could just wait me out, you were mistaken.
I achieved this at little or no expense by decorating my office thoughtfully with my “stuff.” Interesting mementos, pictures and art that is of personal value to me. Sure, you can’t look at my office without learning about my background, that I love service, football, children and improving our neighborhoods; but it also sends the important message that I’m not going anywhere soon.
Atmosphere matters—you need to have constant reminders of where you come from, who you are and what your values are. Your workplace needs to be more than white walls and the occasional bland piece of art. If you decorate your workspace with meaningful reminders of your values—if they truly embody where you come from—they will drive you towards what you want to accomplish.
I learned part of this lesson from athletic teams. Great teams do an outstanding job adding their values to their physical space. As soon as you walk through the doors, you witness larger-than-life pictures of great teams, legendary heroes, of great seasons, of championships and triumphs. The teams make sure that every player knows why they are there and how they are expected to perform. To win. To have great success—together.
Decorate with Intent
I saw a different example of creating atmosphere in my recent visit to Philadelphia University when President Stephen Spinelli showed me the new Design Engineering and Commerce (DEC) Building. Now this building, in layman’s terms, is just cool. The building is modern, eco-friendly, full of natural light and embodies Philadelphia University’s values. From a metallic outer-shell for climate control, to flexible work space for groups, to glass walls to write on, this building says “innovate” from every corner. This is exactly what Dr. Spinelli values and wants his students to accomplish. He decorates to innovate. The space helps him drive an agenda of great creativity. That is no accident.
Today, the MDO reflects our values and reminds everyone what we are about. My personal office does the same. For me, a picture of Cesar Chavez exemplifies leadership and demonstrates my pride in my Latin heritage. It also reminds me that I am a role model to thousands of Latino youth. The most important reminders, however, are the pieces of artwork from our city’s children, reminding us every day of whom we work for. Our physical space now keeps us grounded in the right priorities and focused on the right outcomes.
Don’t forget to consider what your physical space communicates to others. Someone in my office might notice a framed letter from Senator Bob Casey, however, that letter hangs next to a painted piece of tile from the students at Russell Byers Middle School that I am equally proud of. I want to communicate to any visitor that the painted tile is every bit as important to me as a letter from a U.S. Senator and that those values guide me as Managing Director.
Create your atmosphere with INTENT. Focus on what you celebrate, your priorities and what you hope to accomplish. Do that well and it will help create a vibrant and winning atmosphere in your workplace. Even if you don’t decorate a reception room or line an office with artwork, give yourself reminders of why you’re there. Not only will this help your team get to where you’re going next, but it will ensure that your values are the driving force behind you and your organization. Combine the right culture with the right environment and you will get the kind of atmosphere that gets the right results. Create that atmosphere and you will avoid the storms and have more than just a few great days.
Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.