Building Company Culture with Office Art

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Art“If you’ve ever been to Paris, or Rome, or any old European city, no matter where you stay, you walk out of your hotel room, you walk two steps, and you look up, and there’s this art,” says Jason Korman, CEO of Gapingvoid, which helps companies “transform [their] businesses” through art.

Draw on your own experiences in the Old World, or do a quick image search on Google, and you can confirm Korman’s reverie. I think back to my time spent in Italy, where it seemed I couldn’t walk down a street without walking into some gorgeous sculpture, wonderful church, or immense fountain.

“There’s a reason for that,” Korman says. “The guys who used to be in charge — we can go back 100 years or 2000 years — they knew that art reminded people of what there is to love, what there is to hate, what there is to fear. They knew that, if they put it out and around, it would be a constant reminder of what’s most important to people and what they wanted people to think was most important.”

Korman and Hugh MacLeod, the artist whose work comprises the company’s catalogue, started Gapingvoid after the two worked together on what was initially a marketing project — until Korman realized the huge impact that MacLeod’s art had on his business.

“What I saw was that his voice and this style of communication changed our relationships with clients. It changed our relationships with the trade. It changed how people perceived what we did,” Korman says. “It fundamentally shifted how we viewed what we did and how we communicated with each other in the business and outside the business.”

Art and the ‘Intractable’ Problems of Culture

“Most core value-type mission documents that you see aren’t very impactful and don’t get used,” Korman says. “They get created by a committee and then put away. People don’t really look at them. They don’t really connect with people.”

This fact poses a significant problem for companies who are looking to realign or reinvigorate their corporate cultures. A business cannot simply hold a meeting, decide to change the culture, and then enact the change. “If you look into changing perceptions and values, it doesn’t happen right away. It happens over time,” Korman says. “And it doesn’t happen in a group session or just a talk. It’s something that people have to absorb and discuss.”

To help companies achieve these changes — to help them deal with what Korman calls the “intractable problems around people, culture, and internal communications ” — Gapingvoid introduces art as a powerful, strategic business tool.

“What we do is really look at purpose and values,” Korman explains. “We go in and we make them real for people, in real language, using real emotion, with illustrations that people can live with everyday and absorb.”

Art is far more vital and invigorating than dusty corporate documents, and when people are surrounded by art that represents and promotes the company’s values and purpose, they connect more immediately to and more readily embody the company culture. One only needs to do some cursory research on the picture superiority effect  to see that this is true.

Korman sees Gapingvoid’s art as a tactic for disseminating important cultural messages among employees. “If you’ve got a lot of employees — you’ve got a big company with lots of offices — it’s not like you can just put an image up in the main area,” he says. “You have to actually think about, ‘What are we doing? How are we going to spread it? How do we communicate with each other? Do we use decks? Do we do face-to-face? What do we use to spread the ideas?’”

Gapingvoid does not only work with companies to create art pieces for bare walls; it also builds “themed areas,” which are spaces that immerse employees in the culture and purpose of their workplace.

But for the myriad ways in which art can reinforce company culture, some are still wary about its place in business. Korman wants to change that.

The Value of ‘Soft’ Tools

Gapingvoid has worked with a lot of tech companies — Korman says that most of the company’s early followers were in the tech industry — but it has also started working more and more with more traditional businesses.

“Those are the guys who actually need it the most,” Korman says. “The tech world gets how important culture is, and they have their way of dealing with it, but the old industrial and financial services companies, they really struggle with it, because it’s never been something that they thought about much, so you have to retrofit things onto existing cultures, which is more challenging.”

Korman says that a lot of traditional executives are not comfortable with “the soft stuff,” like culture, because these things are relatively new concepts in the business world. “They never learned how you deal with culture, or how you deal with people, or how you connect emotionally at work,” Korman says.

The problem is, there aren’t a lot of tools for the “soft stuff” — aside from art, of course.

“Art is considered to be kind of soft. It’s not seen as a serious business tool,” Korman says. “But if you view it as a core part of how you communicate and immerse your people in art that actually has a business purpose to it, then you can transform environments, you can transform how people feel, how they do their work, how they deal with each other, and totally change your entire business. You can transmit to anyone who walks into that space what matters to you, what doesn’t matter to you, what you believe in.”

“As a real strategic tool, it’s incredibly powerful,” Korman says. “But because it’s art, serious managers have never considered it as an option. They’re used to memos, spreadsheets, and flow charts. But when it comes to actually affecting people’s mental state, there’s nothing better.”

By Matthew Kosinski