The term “cultural artifacts” refers to the physical items that communicate to observers what an organization (be it a family, a company, a school, or a country) values. Cultural artifacts are symbols that help both insiders and outsiders understand what it means to belong to that group. For group members, artifacts can also help solidify commitments and guide daily behaviors. Cultural artifacts can subtly but surely impact the way an organization feels and functions, which means that office decorations go way beyond a simple aesthetic choice.
The idea of cultural artifacts in work organizations was put forth by Edgar Schein as he worked to understand how company cultures evolve and change. An important finding from Schein’s work (and subsequent research on organizations) is that highly functional organizations show consistency in what they communicate in their words, actions, and their artifacts. When all of the layers of culture reflect the same values, it’s easier for the company and its people to operate the way those values say they should.
One of my favorite things to do when I visit another company or office is to look for the artifacts they choose to display. I’ve recently had the interesting experience of working in a new office location for an established company. It was only in the last few weeks that the space was finished with company logos and signage, but interestingly enough, employees proactively hung those types of symbols in their work areas on their own before the permanent installations.
Sometimes the cultural artifacts are symbolic rather than explicit: Open workspaces suggest a culture of collaboration, individual offices one of parallel path work. Other times they are more straightforward descriptions of a culture, such as posters reiterating company priorities or photographs of employees (my last company’s office now boasts photo collages of my colleagues playing ping pong, frisbee, and running road races). Not all cultural artifacts are warm and fuzzy: Think of food service establishments that often hang sternly worded warnings about proper handwashing and hygiene. These signs communicate a commitment to cleanliness but also perhaps a distrust that employees will uphold that commitment without a reminder.
Which leads me to one of my favorite cultural artifacts, the employee-driven, somewhat passive-aggressive bathroom sign (usually posted on the back of a stall door). I’m always delighted to find one of these. What these signs suggest about an organization’s culture is that not all individuals are on the same page with respect to how the facilities are used and maintained, and that there isn’t a strong cultural value of good citizenship (which should make this kind of artifact unnecessary). These kinds of “control” artifacts always strike me as a sign of something amiss beneath the surface, as well as at least one person disgruntled enough to design and print a sign.
If you happen to see any good bathroom signs in the organizations you visit, please share them with me!