A Culture That Values Culture
“The office is dead?”
How many times did we read or hear that over the past several years?
With tens of millions of employees experiencing working from home, pundits and experts across the country declared the idea of reporting to an office officially “dead”. The commute, child-care, office politics, worker-safety, bullying, terrible bosses, work/life balance, and more…all were reasons why the pandemic was the final straw that broke the cubicle’s back. Message-boards were buzzing with posters declaring how much more productive they were at home. Commercial Real Estate firms reported massive vacancies and 30 Rock in NYC had new tenants, previously unknown, moving in with cheap leases – gambling on their business and praying that people would eventually return to their offices. Large companies began to concede to a “hybrid” working model; planning for employees to work from home 2-3 days a week and offering heretofore unseen levels of flexibility. Was the office dead?
September continued to loom large. This was the month to begin returning to the office. Schools would be back in session and child-care would be less burdensome. The majority of the Federal unemployment aid will have subsided and workers would have more motivation to rejoin the workforce. Barring another nationwide resurgence of the pandemic, a return to “normal” seems imminent. How is this possible? What do leaders know that the talking heads and karma farmers don’t? Why would companies, large and small, all make huge bets on returning to the office? Maybe the office isn’t dead.
Something that was largely panned and satirized – especially online – was the idea of “company culture”. It was denigrated as nothing more than “company bullshit”; manipulation by rich owners exploiting their employees and cheating them out of better wages. Collaboration was dismissed as “irrelevant to my role” and wage inflation was celebrated as a reason to abandon current jobs and seek new opportunities. And you know what? It’s all true…for some. And you know what else? It’s all bullshit…for others. As the echo chamber of TV pundits and online movements gathered steam, a variety of cognitive biases flourished; “Just World Hypothesis”, “Groupthink”, “Self-Serving Bias”, and “Negativity Bias” to name a handful. Those who spoke positively of their company, or the value of the social aspects were often silenced by either being down-voted, accused of being a shill, or both. The office was taking a beating.
Having worked for both a Fortune 250 company (14 years) and now a family-owned independent company (7 years) – I firmly believe that culture makes a difference. And, the difference it makes is dependent upon whether or not culture matters. You see, every company has a culture. Some are intentional and some are by default. Some are toxic and some are healthy. Some companies achieve through fear and pressure while others thrive on engagement and inspiration. Every office has a culture.
So, what do leaders know that others don’t? Leaders know that, by and large, we are social creatures; even those who go online to let thousands of people know that they’re not. That ambitious employees want to connect with mentors. That collaboration matters: sometimes, one person’s throwaway comment can be heard by the right person in the right meeting and that can create a chain-lighting brainstorm that births innovation.
Leaders know that nature decided to change the world of business and the global economy and that there is only so much that can be controlled. They know that when all else fails, and nobody knows what to do, a strong culture will empower employees to do what they need to do. That the right culture will engage employees in ways that video calls and emails never can. Leaders know that culture cannot be communicated; it must be absorbed through immersion. Leaders know that the office isn’t dead… the office is different.