Building The Corporate Village Part 1: Creating a Postmodern Workplace

By Lloyd Irwin

In response to the cold world of institutional concrete and steel that had been created by modernist artists and architects, a new craze called “Postmodernism” permanently transformed the architectural world in the 1970s. Signified by the curve instead of the straight line, this was the language of the heart redefining the built environment.

Symbolic in nature, and exaggerated for emphasis, Postmodern architecture took its inspiration from deeper human aspirations – such as the need to find a warm and welcoming “shelter” – and sought to create buildings with a human scale and temperament. In philosophical terms, it was a kind of anti-logic, the triumph of the non-rational over the rational, but simply put it was just a cry for the human touch.

Beyond inhuman conformity

Postmodernism was (and is) a rebellion against unfeeling institutional structures and the inhuman conformity they demanded. Such sentiments had in fact been circulating for quite some time. The artists and composers of Romanticism and Impressionism gave the postmodern story its early voice and images.

By the time of the protest anthems of the 1960s, Postmodernism was a grass roots movement, advocating the message that we are essentially human, and not machine.

Then society asked for more from architecture too – something that would evoke an emotional response of delight rather than oppression; a tower to inspire, not a skyscraper to grate; a home to nurture not a mere house to let. It was a yearning to get beyond the “dollars per square metre” rationalism of modernism, and to inject some warmth and some heart.

Getting to the heart and soul

This was, in broad strokes, a victory of the people over the institution. It was a lesson in the perils of ignoring the human need to feel, to inter-connect and to create meaning and identity. It was the inevitable reaction to individually oppressive systems. It was a reminder that all human constructs – whether buildings, institutions corporations or nations, are driven by and for people, and not the other way around. Yet these lessons are still being learned the hard way every day in corporations and businesses around the world.

Where leaders show more care for the institution than for its people, they risk a mini-rebellion of the same sort. Staff may not join protest marches as in the 60’s, but they rebel nonetheless – by disengaging, by performing poorly, by pursuing competing goals, even leaving for an alternative work environment.

Strategies and objectives decided in the stratosphere of the boardroom will not create the same passion down the ranks, until individuals can see how their own life and work will have greater meaning as a result.

Accepting change will only be worth it when the cost of not changing is greater. Business targets will raise little more than a roll of the eyes until they provide individuals with purpose and meaning beyond the company simply achieving its goals.

Focusing on the human element

Leaders can bring the human element into the workplace in many ways. They can create teams where people can identify, connect and belong. They can generate passion by sharing their corporate dreams and telling their stories. They can create spaces for staff to fulfill their own aspirations while meeting company goals.

But whatever else they do, business leaders need to heed the warning of the Postmodern craze – they must allow people to feel truly human, or they may risk another rebellion.

©2006 Lloyd Irwin


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