Intercultural Communication and Office Space: How Your Office Communicates Cultural Values


Take a look around your business or home office. What sort of furnishings are there? You likely see a desk or table, chairs, shelves, maybe a lamp or even some artwork. Now look at how those furnishings are placed. Does your desk face someone else or are you enclosed in a cubicle? Is there a door to shut? How much light enters your space? Is it natural or artificial light? How close or far is your space from your supervisor? Whether you realize it or not, all of these questions are based on cultural values that exist in the workplace. With so many people working in non-native cultures, it is worth making note of some of the differences.

The European workplace varies depending on the country. For instance, in both Germany and France laws exist, mandating employee access to natural light. Many U.S. offices however, are filled with fluorescent lights meant to simulate natural light. Germans are also big on privacy and respect. It would be unthinkable to enter someone else’s office without knocking and gaining permission to enter. Dropping by unannounced is considered rude. In Italy, on the other hand, dropping by is much less offensive.

Middle Eastern companies are unique in that multinational corporations located there are designed with the Western mentality in mind. That means that the higher your office is in the building, the more important you are. There are also likely to be multiple cubicles in the middle of the room surrounded by offices with windows for floor managers. Cubicles will offer some privacy and may be personalized with personal pictures or knick-knacks. Smaller Arab companies look at the office as a meeting place where multiple activities take place simultaneously. Little, if any, privacy is afforded. Constant conversation and interaction is normal. That’s how business is done.

Group work is an overriding value in Japanese culture and it shows in the way they design their offices. Many employees work from large meeting tables without any division from the people around them. Although the boss may have his/her own office, he/she often sits at the head of the table with the employees. In other cases, private desks are situated so that everyone faces the same direction. The boss sits behind them. This arrangement would likely drive North Americans crazy because they would feel as if they were under constant surveillance. Without the privacy and perceived trust to do their jobs, they would not likely stay with that company.

As you can see, these cultural differences are significant. For some, the right to privacy rules over their work space. Others would be appalled by the inability to instantly interact with those around them. How communication flows at work is equally impacted by this. Having to go through multiple channels of a hierarchy before a decision can be made, slows the process, whereas having your boss in the same open area may make it easier to communicate ideas or questions.

What does your work space look like? How does that arrangement communicate your values to others? Think about it and let us know!

Global Perceptions is a communication and relocation consulting company based in San Juan, Puerto Rico that offers cultural insights, adaptation training, and language courses. Want to know more? Visit or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


  • I loved learning that there are laws that secure access to natural light in the workplace. Natural light is so important, especially for creative work. Thanks for this article. Excellent read!

    • Thanks for the feedback, Vigimaris! Lighting is so important. The natural light provided by the Puerto Rican sunshine is part of what keeps me here!

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