4 Ways to Design a Culture of Innovation and Inspiration (Culture Series Part 1)

8 min read

This is the first post in a new series on how to build a strong culture in your promotional products business.

Every environment shapes us.

The childhood environment we were raised in.

The ecological environment we breathe.

We even take meticulous care to decorate our homes in ways that not only make it comfortable for us to live, but in ways that reflect who we are.

Environment shapes who we have become and who we are becoming and with our businesses it’s no different.

For example, when you view the interior environment of Anthem Branding, (pictured at the top of this post) you immediately sense something about their identity and their ambition. With its sharp, clean lines and uncluttered space, you intuit a progressive, distinctive, young-at-heart culture that prides itself on innovation.

Or, when viewing the conference room at Brand Fuel, Inc. you pick up their vibe as an energetic, playful, and imaginative business.

But the interior of a business cannot be designed merely for aesthetics; it’s built for purpose.

And in the promotional products business, a business utterly interdependent upon others, physical spaces are crucial to collaboration and productivity, which ultimately defines culture.

In a survey of 250,000 employees in 2,000 different workspaces about workplace design, the Leesman index revealed that 85% of employees stated that “the design of my workplace is important to me” but only 57% said, “my workplace enables me to work productively.”

In Fred Wilson’s post “What a CEO Does,” he writes that “A CEO … sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders … recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent … and makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.”

I would like to add a fourth to this list, as leaders of small, growing businesses, it is critical that we make sure our teams have the right environments and the right tools to do a spectacular job, and to foster a culture of inspiration and innovation. And “tools” in today’s modern workplace encompasses even the physical environments in which we work.

How can we improve the physical aspect of our workspaces to build a strong culture? Following are four ways:


(1) Create a physical environment of collaboration.


We must do what we can to foster a physical environment of creative sharing. If possible, for a promotional products distributor, the modern office should be redesigned to reflect the needs of a collaborative work culture.

When distributor Creative moved into a new location, they took meticulous care to design a new space that would not only be reflective of their culture, but an environment that would serve as an incubator for idea-sharing.

“It was important for us to design a space that was conducive for small team huddles or even all-team huddles since collaboration is the core of our business,” said Carson Roncketto, Chief Operating Officer at Creative. “We considered carefully every structural and aesthetic design decision, whether it was as simple as white walls and clean, open spaces with natural light, or whether it was about restricting the number of offices we built, the key was to create an environment that would not restrict the free-flow of ideas but also shape an environment that would serve as a catalyst for peer sharing.”

Granted that few of us have deep-enough resources to redesign our physical spaces completely, but we must do everything we can to create an openness that promotes interaction. If our physical space has too many walls, it’s important we frequently gather for collaboration. When I was a distributor, we were stuck in a traditional office building with most of our team in secluded office spaces, but we made frequent use of the “five-minute rule”: at any time, a team member could call a five-minute meeting with a group to collaborate on a client project. This seemingly simple idea had the power to extract us from our burrows and collaborate frequently while helping colleagues get “unstuck” from a creative project.

The key is to be aware that the right environment shapes the right activity and eventually, outcome.


(2) Continually invest in physical equipment.


In far too many distributorships, there are still employees working on small computer screens or salespeople who lack the right mobile tools that allow for flexibility and yet, more often, the race today is won by the swiftest. Your hardware (your tech investment) with your team is never-ending. Always make sure your team has the fastest, most up-to-date tools. If an employee needs a larger screen, a new computer, or dual monitors, make it happen.

And physical equipment extends beyond technology. By now, most of us are familiar with the adverse effects of sitting at a desk all day. In a typical work week, people spend, on average, over five hours sitting. The investment in good office chairs and standing desks is an investment in mental acuity and responsiveness in addition to a long-term investment in employee health.

The gains in efficiency in this business, due to the right equipment, vastly outweigh the negative impact of skimping on appropriate resources. To put things in perspective, one order from a client can pay for a new piece of equipment that will create hundreds of more orders.

Continually investing in equipment is also a reminder to everyone that you will do whatever it takes to make sure the customer is taken care of quickly, both in the small things and in the large, it’s a conscious customer service choice filled with intent.


(3) Fight clutter with a flamethrower mentality.


If ever there were an argument for smart design, including open and clear spaces that promote efficiency, it’s in the promotional products business.

With thousands of products, samples, and catalogs, it’s a cluttered business that attracts disorder like a magnet which is a productivity killer because it’s also a fast-paced business that requires collaboration and quick thinking. The combination of clutter and the demand for fast responses is a recipe for disaster.

Don’t hang onto samples because “a client might need this someday.” Clear clutter frequently. Get rid of samples and catalogs. A hoarder mentality promotes micro-management over past-history instead of focusing on future opportunities and a hoarder mentality in this business will bury you. Trying to manage hundreds of samples is trying to micro-managing chaos. Impossible.

In her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo wrote, that “discarding … is a continuous process of making decisions based on one’s own values,” and when you combine that thought with the fact that a typical salesperson spends more than 50% of their time searching, not selling, the question about clutter becomes a question about what matters to you most.

Burn those past project resources as quickly as you can so that you can clear both your physical space and your headspace, and mentally prepare for the projects that are to come.


(4) Make a big impact with little things


The environment we work in is the environment that shapes us, and the smallest details can make a surprisingly huge impact on productivity and culture. Natural light is a great example. In Leesman’s index, the survey asked employees to rank which physical or service features were most important and natural light was in the top 10 of a list of 50, after desk, chair, and refreshments. Psychology Today reported a study that natural light in the office directly impacts quality of life including the fact that employees who are exposed to more natural light are more active, and slept, (on average), 46 minutes more per night.

And can we talk about those little things? Like art on the walls? At Atlanta-based distributor Icebox, when you enter their office, you are immediately greeted with pics of celebrities with the simple word “SWAG” printed on the front. It’s quirky, whimsical, and cool, and a subtle but purposeful play toward branding and cultural intent.  

Even the tiniest of aesthetics matter. I recently bought a few succulents (which require very little upkeep, thankfully) and placed them in my office and was pleasantly surprised at the way this little change emitted a vibrancy. Not only do small things like plants improve air quality, but the poet Stanley Kunitz stated that this small touchpoint with plantlife signifies’s eagerness, insistence, and a driving energy, (to live, grow, and bear fruit) which sounds a lot like the life of a small business.

Whether you’re a solopreneur, remote worker, or the leader of a small business, attention to the cares of your office space can vastly improve physical and mental health and inspire creative thinking, and if that isn’t enough to convince you, when it comes to some of these environmental changes (like natural light and plants), you and your team will sleep better and work faster, too.

We fight so hard to distinguish our brands from other companies by focusing on external branding when in reality, all change -personally and professionally- is intrinsically internal. Simon Sinek wrote that “customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.”  No outward expression is made manifest without first a radical transformation within.

What we want most out of our physical spaces is to build cultures conducive to exceptional customer service and team collaboration, and to create a working lab for ceaseless ideas.

In the end, our physical and environmental decisions take resource planning and the emotional intelligence to make it important, for what we do within the walls of our physical environments shape our identity and define our culture to the world.

Want more design inspiration? Check out our friends at Creative Boulevard, Juice Marketing, and intandem.

commonsku is cloud-based promotional products software to modernize your business. We give you the best tools to run your business from presentation through to invoicing and everything in between. To learn more or try it for free, visit commonsku.com.

Anthem Branding photo by Daniel O’Connor.

Also published on Medium.