FUTURE OF WORK
What Is Work Culture Now?
In a new remote world — where we don’t have campuses, slides, dog-friendly offices or early-drinks-Fridays — what is company culture?
I remember facilitating a session with some senior leaders on culture. When asked for an example of the company culture more than one cited “free snacks". It worried me at the time but it was certainly in line with how everyone else saw the company.
In an attempt to set themselves apart companies have installed slides, given away free snacks, brought in exotic plants, and had Friday night drinks.
Sounds 'fun' but what happens below the surface when the easy-to-buy physical representations of the culture you want aren’t there anymore?
- How do you recreate the culture?
- Do you recreate the culture?
- Does anyone care?
The pandemic has changed the world forever. At least as far as the world of work goes. But the narrative seems to be about ‘getting back to normal’ even if the weight of evidence is suggesting that things will change permanently.
I mean there are still some contrarian views out there — Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has stated that remote work is “pure negative” and expects employees back in the office once a vaccine is widely available.
If overall, we assume the shift that was already underway has had a tragic worldwide boost and the number of people working remotely and flexibly is increasing drastically particularly in developed economies, what comes next for culture?
Culture — challenging the material
What is culture anyway? The classical definition is something like the ‘collective norms’ of a group of people. And it tends to be levied at large groups. Teams are said to have a culture but as it’s small scale it is often hard to say that those team norms you call culture couldn't easily be disrupted. So is that culture? But 300 employees acting in a semi-consistent way is a hard tide to turn — and culture is typically thought of as having some staying power.
But, I have been on many webinars and spoken to many leaders and under the recent challenges, it’s become clear they are focusing on some specific aspects they are worried about. The sort of things that are being discussed as ‘lost’ in the new world and having a detrimental impact on culture are:
- Cool urban working environment
- Watercooler talk
- Impromptu collaboration
- Food/free snacks/eating together
- After works drinks
- Game nights
So here is the thing. Those aren’t culture.
They are a mix of symptoms/outputs/enablers. They are easily disrupted — although for some it has taken a pandemic to do so, maybe that isn’t so ‘easy’. Also, the implicit definition of workplace culture was something that actually made a difference, that created competitive advantage — is this list the best we can come up with?
In my view, the culture is the deepwater here not the surface ripple. So when we start to talk about ‘maintaining culture’ it suddenly becomes hard to describe what that actually looks like. It’s also worth remembering that whilst the evidence for the advantage of ‘culture’ is not universal, there is even less evidence that you can effectively manipulate it.
Besides, in a survey conducted by Nulab claimed that the top 3 cultural components from an employees point of view in descending order are:
- Flexible work hours
- Flexible time off
- Communication from leadership
- Option to work remotely
- Employee recognition scheme
Amongst those who work completely remotely the drop between 4 and 5 is a drop from 34% to 15%. So let’s bear that in mind when we look at the list of what we seem to be ‘losing’ in the new remote world.
The case of impromptu collaboration
I’m singling this out as it is a little bit different and implies a clear business outcome.
This sort of collaboration is often described as ‘corridor conversations’ and there are lots of examples of how these kinds of discussions have led to innovations and problem-solving.
Here’s the issue: Bias. More specifically the illusion of causality — if someone believes that a company is more innovative because people bump into one another it is very hard to disprove.
How do we know the value of this kind of collaboration? This might sound slightly fatalistic but how do we know the innovation wouldn't have happened anyway? Would we take a special note of when collaboration comes up in a meeting i.e it didn't surface in a hallway? Of course not because it was expected that collaboration would take place in a meeting. But those chance encounters are novel and memorable.
What about if that collaboration hadn’t happened in a hallway? Would it have happened in the meeting instead? Maybe.
I know some people will have examples of impromptu conversations that definitely would not have happened any other way. What if you are right and the whole company was changed by that ‘sliding doors’ moment? Do we know for certain it was the right change? Many companies have been remote only and still been successful and innovative. Any CEO relying on literal elevator pitches really isn’t doing their job.
So if you ignore all of the above challenges and go forward with the assumption that this isn’t just of value, but of peculiar value, then we should still ask ‘What are we willing to do to make this happen?’.
The whole point of these fortuitous moments is they are basically zero cost. Some suggested solutions for this are:
- Create a virtual room where people can go to hang out to see if others join (I have done this by the way and it doesn't work unless you invest a lot of time ‘enforcing’ it)
- Randomly connect people for coffee (I actually love this idea but my experience is that this is just about connecting people to open doors, it doesn’t result in collaboration)
- Have a virtual wall where people put a load of ideas up to create opportunities for others to collaborate
- Going forward enforce people coming to the same location (thank goodness we can guarantee collaborative innovation will happen on Thursday when everyone will definitely be free every week to be together)
The point is that for these things to work they need quite a lot of effort to encourage people to do them. They aren’t the zero-cost solution we had before, so if you are going to make these happen you should be sure that they are worth doing. The alternative? Get better at structuring work so that likely opportunities for collaboration are identified and explored early.
So having dissected that one aspect of an ‘in-person culture’ I think we can repeat similar challenges, and perhaps unearth the same fallacies and biases to culture more broadly.
- Do we know the value of culture?
- Do we know that this culture adds unique value?
- Are we clear what investments are worthwhile in trying to ‘create’ a culture?
As I have mentioned above, many of the leaders I speak to are worried about the cultural value of seeing people and the statement that the workplace experience can add — as ‘artefacts’ of culture.
Those material aspects of culture were at least partly about creating a better experience of ‘going to work’. They were about incentivizing being in the office. They were the equivalent of the Facebook keyboard vending machines. They were partly perpetuated by silicon valley culture which also famously has historic cultural problems with misogyny and ‘crunch’ approach to work. Live on campuses drive a work/play culture to maximize output. Is that what we are trying to recreate in a remote world? A sense that connecting with work and your colleagues is ‘necessary’?
This definition of a ‘good’ work culture is as much about offsetting the pain of coming together in the workplace — it costs money (to the employee) to get to and takes you away from the people or circumstances you have chosen to share your life with. You then have to spend, in my opinion, a very inhuman amount of time with people who you have very little control over.
That has changed.
Personally, inbetween ‘work’ (i.e. meetings, creating documents, attending training etc), I am getting snacks anyway (and they are the ones I choose) spending time with my kids (after school finishes) chatting to my wife if she is on a break too, eating better than I have eaten ever before, doing a workout 20 ft from my desk.
Don’t get me wrong there are things I would change, and the company could facilitate that. The $1000 payment a number of companies are making to employees to supplement working from home would definitely offset the cost of buying a garden office. But that’s not in the ‘culture’ category for most companies — it isn’t sexy or cool, or brightly colored, it can’t be easily shown off to clients and prospective employees.
At the moment I create my own ‘culture’ which includes and embraces work, but it isn’t my work. My breaks, which might have previously been taken in a beanbag in a communal area, are now a ‘retreat’ to my home. I don’t need a company to assure me that I have a fun place to be when I’m not ‘on the clock’, I know I will, I bought it and all the things in it myself.
Isn’t there a very real chance that the designed and funded ‘company’ culture, at least as defined by what can be bought and easily deployed, just isn’t that important anymore?
Why are we getting culture wrong?
If you are senior leader in a company, your identity is tied up in that company. Gary Vaynerchuk recently shared across multiple platforms that “it’s ludicrous to expect your employees to work as much as you do.” I think this is the issue — implicitly leaders of organisation expect employees to be living and dying the job, and to not do so sort of suggests a lack of commitment. They really care, either because it is their company or because huge financial incentives are tied to the success of the company.
Even if it isn’t about the amount of work there is a sort of validation of me/my company if it occupies a place of significance in the life of my employees. But this deal doesn’t work both ways. It implicitly diminishes the significance of the life of the employee. The same leaders expect employees to ‘book leave’. Flexibility one way only.
The problem is that leaders have lost sight of what’s important. The business. There was a belief that culture made things happen, but the implication was it made people want to do there work and ‘be there’ for longer hours. What if this isn’t how work gets done? In fact, the early data (according to Mercer), is suggesting that virtually everyone working from home has experienced a boost in productivity and the biggest boost is for those who have the most flexibility. As mentioned above flexibility is what people are saying is the most important aspect of company culture. So maybe in a roundabout way culture is still really important, we should just be taking the lead from employees, not from those whose identities are wrapped up in the branding and vision of the organisation.
Again what cost are we actually willing to pay? Nevermind that engagement consultancies have been stroking egos for years saying that the business is better when employees agree with your specific values and company vision. I would argue this has become the new ‘stuff; just assets to point. Very rarely lived. There is an irony that the stronger a desirable culture is within a company the less needs to be spent on keeping it alive, revisiting the values every few years. A beautiful view doesn’t need commentary.
Misunderstanding culture and consistency
One of the other reasons we have got a little bit lost in the “place and stuff” definitions of culture is that they were easy to build off the back of consistency.
Let me explain. Historically due to the obstacles of telecommuting, business tended to be in one head office with satellite offices or a few hubs. Employees tended to have a fairly consistent experience of ‘work’. Often commuting in from suburbs, working the same place, working the same hours, and having a similar background i.e. born in the same country.
In wanting to increase productivity it made sense then that changing those things that were consistent about the employee experience might reasonably change employee, and therefore business, outcomes. All the way back to the Hawthorne Works experiments into the impact of lighting on factory productivity, the environmental levers have been pulled. But just as the Hawthorne Effect became a byword for flawed methodology and experimenter/subject bias, culture, or at least attempts to create a specific workplace culture that’s the ‘right’ one have also come into disrepute.
Besides we are now at the point where the cost of consistency has just gone through the roof. In a remote-first world, the cost of just giving people a paper book (for example) has skyrocketed — we could have left them in the lobby now we have to ship them to a thousand homes. So creating a consistent work experience is now impossible and I expect, for most employees, undesirable. We must, with ruthless urgency, let go of the fact that at the tactical level we can influence employee culture at all.
Let’s also not forget that pre-pandemic there was a significant rise in the number of temporary, contract and self-employed workers. Sure, some of these may be interested in ‘converting’ to an employee but if you haven’t made an employment commitment to them, why would they look to you for an enticing culture?
However, if we let go of the confusion between culture and consistency we can make progress.
Avoiding the real issue
This does sort of relate to the point of ego above, but often cultural consultants would claim that getting the right culture would result in:
- Reduce attrition
- Reduce sickness absence
- Increased productivity
Since culture is, if it can really be perceived at all, is a moving feast, it is hard to say if it ever delivered on these promises. But according to Forbes Global Workforce Analytics and workplace that is optimised from remote work can hit all three of these.
What other uncomfortable, but very tangible changes could be made to deliver similar results rather than constantly looking for the end of the cultural rainbow?
What can be done in the new world of culture?
Ask and listen to your employees
How you set up the questions is really important. “Here’s the money we use to spend on-premises and events — how do you want to spend it now to have fun?” is a very leading and very different question to “What is important to you?” Maybe don’t even use the word ‘culture’ in your questions because it has become so laden with the idea of consistency and conformity.
Avoid making assumptions
Challenge the leadership or decision-makers such as HR or workplace teams to not assume that their view is that relevant. What was a no-brainer (e.g. people decide where they will work, partly based on what it looks like) may just not be true anymore. Agree as a leadership team to challenge those assumptions and unpick old mind-sets.
Also, ask your prospective employees
Maybe your entry-level grads only make up a small percentage of your employees but there use to be a big overlap between what attracts new employees and what retains the existing ones. This is a very specific assumption to test because of the potentially different demographics. With the cost of living so high and grads mourning the loss of university life would a solution like Salina appeal — a company that creates a ‘campus’ environment without the campus flexible working and living location with a choice of locations around the world? In this sense, you are outsourcing aspects of your culture for employees that choose it.
Challenge yourself to make culture about choice
I suspect before lockdown if you had a company awayday a lot would have been read into a low turnout. But actually, with employees potentially spread out geographically, and a taste of flexibility may have changed their lifestyle priorities, is that still true? Perhaps from now on the most appealing workplace culture will be the one that creates maximum choice. True empowerment for employees not just about the tasks they choose but every aspect of how they work. This obviously isn't possible for everyone but it is a great challenge for employers — what choices can you create not just within the work context but within the life context (i.e. see Salina above).
Look for the success in an emergent culture
I might come across as being cynical as to the value or reality of culture at all. I’m not. It is very clear that you can have cultures. Toxic? Learning? Coaching? I have witnessed this firsthand. However, I would argue they were barely curated, let alone created. Look for the emergent properties already in existence and just nudge them towards good work. This is cheaper and more sustainable than trying to design something from scratch. Then, rather than trying to select for culture, (which is very hard to do with any validity — you smartest employees are the best at faking) make your culture as transparent as possible, don’t pay in the top 10%ile and trust that enough individuals will deselect themselves to ensure you can maintain the best parts of what you have. Also, sack arseholes fast.
Few bold strokes
I am generally of the view that culture isn’t changed easily or rapidly if it can be intentionally changed at all. But if change can take place it relies on systematic change. I have never witnessed this firsthand (and I have seen a lot of attempts at using the superficial levers). But there are a number of companies who create consistent appealing features (call it ‘culture’ if you like) through sustained investment (mental and well and financial) in one or two big ideas — make it a movement not a mandate. Even then, I have only heard it be successful in groups of about 150 or less (Dunbar’s number), so bigger companies take it piecemeal or have built from clear beginnings. Zappos. HCL. Enspiral.
In summary, regurgitate the cool aid — we do not know the true value of culture, we have no idea if we can create culture, and we have no idea of its place for a highly flexible workforce. Start again, challenge assumptions, provide practical rewards and employment features that people will value and invest deep and long in the things you really care about.