The following is the third in our series of four articles to summarize the best practices, tips and strategies for small business owners and leaders that were addressed in our 2006 Best Bosses Conference workshops. The previous two articles covered the morning sessions – specifically, the topics ofattracting, retaining and engaging employees; sustaining your organization through innovationchanging to grow an organization; and taking small steps to effect big culture change. This month’s article explores how workplace culture is affected by office design and how staff volunteerism can improve morale and enhance corporate citizenship.

The Influence of Design on Workplace Culture

Mary Corbitt Clark, Michael Rose and Mark Hirons

“First impressions are very strong – for example, think of someone coming into your space as part of a recruiting effort. Your message to your clients, staff and recruits needs to be a cohesive one.”

Mark Hirons, principal of Chicago-based architecture and engineering firm OWP/P, passed along this, his first of many tidbits in this session explaining how design can reflect organizations’ mission and values and, at the same time, motivate employees and capture the interest of visiting customers. Hirons said that whether businesses are relocating to a new office space or renovating their current space, the process of effecting appropriate design begins by evaluating staff’s perception of their space, their space needs and the current work culture.

Providing an example of just one element of the workspace that a client of OWP/P changed to meet its needs, Hirons related how a real estate firm on the 33rd floor of a Chicago office building looked at the light coming in through its windows. Desiring to separate itself from an investment arm of the same company and establish its presence in the city, he said the firm concentrated on having light reflect in its space from surrounding buildings, giving it a fresh, progressive presence.

In another, higher profile example, Hirons explained how cable television and Internet provider Comcast engages visitors in what the company does before they’ve even fully entered the environment. By projecting its various channels on a column with a red scrim, the company draws attention to its work while subtly underscoring its primary branding color.

Michael Rose, Chairman & CEO of Metropolitan Capital Bank, the other presenter in this session, is a client of OWP/P that has benefited from the architecture firm’s guidance in its quest to establish itself as a unique, trustworthy lender. Within a space that was formerly an artist’s loft, Rose explained that the two-year-old firm was concerned about creating an environment in which clients felt comfortable opening up to bank staff. He said that to honor the original purpose of the space, they feature art exhibitions within the bank, which helps bring in new customers and fosters relationship building. For staff, the bank’s unconventional space serves as a source of inspiration. “The comfort of the space has contributed materially to us having more creative conversations,” Rose said.

Hirons said that businesses can do big things on small budgets, including changing light fixtures to evoke a different mood and experimenting with wall and ceiling materials to change the amount of noise in a freeform or call center environment. However, at any stage in an initial office design setup or renovation, he stressed that, “You’ve got to be sensitive to the fact that you’re changing somebody’s life. You’re changing where they’re working and the environment where they spend the majority of their waking hours.”

The Business Case for Employee Volunteerism

“I’d like to talk about using corporate resources to create social value. One of those huge resources is employee volunteerism.”

Susan Knobler, vice president of leading eyewear manufacturer Luxottica Retail’s Give the Gift of Sight Foundation, began this session by changing its title to emphasize the business case for corporate citizenship. In doing this, she clarified that a vital component of this is engaging employees so they’ll want to give their time freely to enhance their lives and, consequently, an organization’s outward perception. Knobler framed her discussion as a counterpoint to the views of the late free-market economist Milton Friedman, who famously wrote that the only social responsibility of business is to make money.

Knobler countered that spending money on corporate philanthropic efforts does not diminish profits. In fact, she argued, it may do the opposite, since businesses can often be more effective than individual donors in addressing social issues. Also, Knobler said, recent studies have shown that customers are more likely to purchase from companies that share their values, and that they feel they can trust.

Although Luxottica Retail, the parent company of Give the Gift of Sight, is huge with over 55,000 employees, Knobler explained that its philanthropic arm started small, originally as a way to recycle eyewear for students and people in need in just 25 LensCrafters stores (Luxottica purchased LensCrafters in 1995, seven years after Give the Gift of Sight began). For more information about the good will and work that the foundation does around the world, as it connects Luxottica’s eye care professionals, read our special feature on the Ohio-based organization.

Knobler made the case that few things feel as good as giving someone the opportunity to do something they couldn’t do before, such as seeing clearly. For Luxottica’s employees, this also serves to make the staff network a little smaller. She said employees meet at the airport for the first time before departing for missions and often form ties that outlast the two-week excursions.

Before turning the podium over to Daniel Newberger, director of operations for Chicago Communities in Schools (CCIS), Knobler provided some tips to help businesses start exploring corporate citizenship. These included:

  • Determine a strategic direction
  • Don’t do everything yourself
  • Branding the program is important, including securing copyrights and trademarks
  • Leverage your resources
  • Avoid “cause marketing” – ie, “If you buy this, we’ll donate $5 to the zoo.”

Newberger of CCIS, an organization that connects schools in the Chicago district with community resources, said its collaboration with Give the Gift of Sight is a logical partnership. After all, Newberger said, of the 5 million children in the Chicago Public School system, 85 percent of them are below the poverty line. Providing free eye exams and eyewear to this audience, therefore, begins to address their urgent needs.