“If we allow Work From Home (WFH) to continue, corporate culture will disintegrate,” is a common lament from big-company CEOs. “We need people back at HQ because…‘teamwork,’ or ‘cohesion’, or ‘<something equally vague yet noble sounding>.’ ” Or so they say, loudly.
Over the 30 years I’ve worked in offices, much of what passed for “culture shaping” was random and unmanaged, and even counterproductive. How does it reinforce company culture to watch the CEO eat cake in a conference room amidst the relatively small HQ staff during obligatory monthly birthday parties?
Even pre-pandemic, when WFH was the exception, the sort of informal interaction seemingly revered by “Return to the Office” CEOs was relatively uncommon. And even when it happened at HQ—where the C-Suite spends its time—was that where it mattered? Most firms do their “real work” across myriad factories, retail stores, hospitals, job sites, and the cabs of trucks, ships, aircraft.
That field workforce, far outnumbering HQ staffers, rarely sees C-Suite execs. They spend their shifts interacting with customers and suppliers and trading partners. And that’s the group that must understand the culture, must live and breathe the culture, must understand how the culture guides their millions of interactions that define “the brand.” I promise you that your HQ staff has memorized the company “Mission, Vision, Values” that hangs over the office entrance. The big question is whether the thousands of field employees have done the same.
Since most of your employees don’t work within sight of the CEO’s corner office, Corporate Culture (notice the Caps) must not depend on office staffers being in the same building at the same time.
Design a Culture That Works for Everyone
Now consider the last two years, when Covid turned HQ employees into remote employees and the pressures of our abrupt WFH forced formerly 9-to-5 staffers to work odd hours. Firms didn’t implode when office workers stayed home. Many firms experienced productivity gains, in fact. But now everyone is a remote employee, out of the CEO’s sight. So let’s design a culture that works for all employees and a culture communication plan that reaches everyone.
So why are we hearing this RTO nonsense? Because most CEOs and BoD Directors are Boomers and older Gen X who grew up “free range” and with wall phones. It’s what they know, what worked to get them to the C-Suite and the Board. But they are wrong and getting more wrong every day!
I’m a boomer. I grew up in NYC, in an apartment with five other family members. We had one telephone, screwed to the kitchen wall with the handset connected to the (rotary-dial) base via a 15-foot-long coil cord. When you wanted privacy, you stretched the cord into the coat closet and shut the door. And we paid by the minute for calls, whether local or “long-distance” (long-distance was so pricey that the only long-distance calls we got announced weddings, births, and deaths!). This inconvenience plus expense meant tying up the phone was strongly discouraged by our parents. (“What if your cousin is getting married and we miss the call?”) What was encouraged was, “Go outside and talk to your friends in the fresh air.”
And that’s how we grew up. The “right” way to communicate was synchronously, preferably face-to-face.
Recognize Generational Differences
My older Gen Y daughter, born in 1993, grew up with Sony cordless phone handsets in most rooms and two phone lines (one for work, one for family). She got her first cell phone at 11 (with limited minutes and SMS txts). Within a year I upgraded her plan to unlimited SMS after I paid for 10K+ monthly txts. She’s comfortable talking to friends and co-workers using phone/Facetime/Teams, but in 2022 finds it far more productive to txt or Teams chat asynchronously. And her cohort consumes entertainment, news, and lessons asynchronously via YouTube, Instagram, etc. (but not Facebook, which is for “old people”). Younger Gen Y managers and executives, born in the 90’s, have increasingly more comfort with “culture” being delivered asynchronously and via screens (some text, but mostly video).
What about Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2012, and now the largest part of the workforce at most firms? The university students I mentor are comfortable with asynchronous communications: basic character-based SMS if they must, but more likely FaceTime and Teams and TikTok and Discord (and likely other services that old fogeys like me haven’t heard of). Many of these communication channels are also content creation/consumption channels: making a 30-second video to express an idea is as natural to a Gen Z employee as is sending a 280-character tweet or an SMS txt message is to an “older” Gen Y executive, or convening a meeting with a flip chart, marker in hand, is to a Boomer executive.
Our upbringing and early experience shape our thinking, more than most of us care to admit. Growing up with face-to-face communication while standing around on a street corner or in a conference room shaped my thinking. Think back: How many of you Boomer execs painstakingly hand-drew “slide decks” that were delivered to the A/V Department to be turned into 35mm slides or overhead transparencies, days or weeks later? (I just stumbled across 25-year-old boxes of such material during a move.) I remember how freeing Harvard Graphics and Corel Draw seemed: I could change my slides all by myself, and have a service send me finished media in only a day or two. How quaint—and how foreign to the 20-something new hire you are trying to excite, incent, motivate!
If you are a Boomer or older Gen X CEO or Board Director, spend time contemplating your biases and vetting your assumptions about culture against the biases of your workforce and target markets. Creating, evolving, and communicating your corporate culture must be inclusive and must change as the world around the firm changes. Covid forced many firms to send office workers home and continues to drive many facets—good and bad—of the Acceleration Economy.
How to: Acceleration Economy Culture for CEOs & BoDs
- Understand your audience, especially how they’re different than you
- DE&I training helps
- Get comfortable using tools (social media, video, etc.) that reach your audience
- Recognize that for office staff, WFH should become WFA rather than RTO
- Most of your folks never had the luxury of WFH, so be careful not to insult them
- CFOs, consider the positive financial impact of becoming “Asset Light” SG&A
- CHROs, consider recruiting the best people, rather than the best people within an hour of HQ
- Remember that “anywhere” includes satellite offices
- Invest in remote collaboration tools that encourage interaction
- Quality cameras, lights, microphones/headsets
- fast networks
- Breakout rooms
- Persistent chat to maintain open channels for casual interactions
- Directory tools that allow employees to seek out expertise or kindred spirits
- Experiment with shared-experience events’that include sending props to homes
No Cake for Me, Thank You
These suggestions may help you get corporate culture on the right track in a changed business world. Stop yearning for a day that may never come, when everybody returns to the office and you can manage by wandering around and hand out slices of birthday cake.
Focus instead on defining a culture that allows the form to thrive in the Acceleration Economy and on effectively communicating it across your entire organization, wherever and whenever they may be.