Perspectives - January 2022
By Adrian Pring, Strategy Director
The great work breakdown
Covid has been a shock to every system. The workplace is no exception. From furlough schemes to extended phases of working from home, our experience of work has gone from routine consistency to fragmented uncertainty. This disruption is driving an unprecedented global workplace upheaval.
Businesses around the world are facing ‘the great resignation’. In the USA, there are record levels of employees quitting. A global Microsoft study, The Work Trend Index, found that over 41% of people were thinking of leaving their current employer. Organisations are fighting to attract and retain talent, often throwing money at the problem; a transactional solution to a profound challenge. Organisational psychologist, Adam Grant, used the phrase languishing, meaning; the stagnation many have been feeling as a result of Covid-related workplace disruptions. Boosting morale and employee engagement is a major challenge for managers as they look after teammates who are exhausted, burned-out, and often grieving. Employees are feeling a lack of connection with their organisation.
Leadership and employee divisions laid bare
Many leaders see calling everyone back to the office as the way to overcome the ‘lack of connection’. Working from home is seen as the main culprit for a culture collapse. “There’s this decay rate in culture that occurs as we’re fully remote for an extended period of time,” says Rob Falzon, vice chair of Prudential Financial. He’s not alone. Even in Silicon Valley, where businesses tend to be pro-flexibility, Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings says he doesn’t “see any positives” from people working from home; “Once we can get a majority of people vaccinated, then it’s probably back in the office.”
Employees don’t necessarily feel the same way. A global EY survey found that 90% of workers want work flexibility and 54% would consider leaving their job without it. Apple employees publicly pushed back on CEO Tim Cook’s memo requiring them to return to the office Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Their open letter bemoaned a “disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote / location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.” This divide was laid bare in Slack’s global Future Forum Pulse; while 75% of executives surveyed wanted to be in the office three days a week or more; the proportion was only 34% for non-executives.
However, the culture challenge facing leaders runs deeper than flexibility around work location.
Covid has merely accelerated pre-pandemic trends. In the USA, telecommuting grew by 115% between 2005 and 2017. In the UK, working from home rose by 80% between 1999 and 2019. And across the EU (including the UK), remote working grew by 43% between 2006 and 2019. Instead, the work location disconnect between employees and executives is part of a wider trend of cultural misalignment between managers and workers. PWC’s Global Culture Survey found that across all key measures of culture, there were major differences between those at C-suite/board level and those below management.
More than where people work, it’s this hierarchical disconnect that is eroding culture.
A recent BCG podcast, called out the difference in employee experience between executives and average workers. From the fundamentals like, the growing pay gap, or the difference between corner office for executives and open office cubicles for everyone else, to seemingly superficial things, like the food on offer to executives. There’s a sense that an executive echo chamber is contributing to ill-conceived decisions that fail to account for the needs and desires of the wider employee base (as the Apple employee letter intimated). Expectations of work will never be the same again.
People expect work to revolve more around their lives; not the other way around.
The consequence of overly top-down thinking is an exodus of talent to organisations where the culture is more inclusive.
Rebuilding culture through brand
So, how to rebuild organisational culture? Fundamentally, culture is something that should be shared. It should be a leveller. A consistent feeling, whether you sit in the boardroom or at a chair working out of your living room.
While an organisational culture can’t be manufactured, its strengths can be identified, harnessed and channelled.
There are also distinct elements that contribute to culture. Hofstede Insights, identifies these elements as values, rituals, heroes and symbols. It is telling that none of these are tangible. Rituals might occur in an office; symbols, such as logos, might adorn the walls within a meeting room, but culture need not always depend on a physical space; it is intangible. It lives in the mind as part of the collective imagination of the people that work together for an organisation.
In that sense, brand (like culture, an intangible asset) plays a central role when it comes to informing, supporting and sustaining culture.
A brand’s logo, colour palette and design system are the symbols that an organisation and its employees experience and use every day. But far from being superficial visual assets, when done well, these help a business stand out, give it an implicit personality and can reflect the organisation’s offer. Whatever they look like, they become representatives of the culture that lies within; they are a source of identity. But to fulfil this role, they have to be supported by the other elements.
A brand’s narrative is the vehicle through which heroes are created. These could be the stories of the founders, how the company came to exist or a legendary moment in its history. All of this provides the plot and substance for an organisation’s purpose.
Indeed, the role of brand purpose is to position the organisation as the hero in making life better for customers, employees, shareholders and beyond.
When a brand’s story is authentic, compelling and different, it serves to inspire employees. It drives pride and belief in the organisation and ultimately action and advocacy.
Rituals are the distinct moments that a company elevates and celebrates; this is the employer brand and employee experience. This could be the way that a business onboards people, trains them, reviews performance and rewards them. But just as important are the more non-business human moments. How an organisation welcomes people, celebrates birthdays or pays tribute to leavers. Whether done in the office or remotely, rituals at their best should be aligned with the brand, reinforcing and interpreting the purpose for those individual moments. Above all they need to be consistent for everyone. This then creates a sense of anticipation, community and belonging.
And brand can also inform values. They come from an understanding of what’s good within an organisation. It doesn’t matter whether a business is risk averse or risk tolerant; formal or informal.
The values should capture the behaviours and actions that serve the business well, help it achieve its ambitions and are true to its purpose.
These can be codified in an EVP (Employee Value Proposition) or written on an ID badge, but it has to be lived and relies on the example set by leaders (who need not necessarily be the executive leadership team). When these are lived, recognised and celebrated, this results in a cohesive understanding of the behaviours that the organisation encourages and values.
Given time and commitment, all of this can be conceived and crafted. Is location important? Yes. Should offices be repurposed to make best use of spaces where people come to collaborate in person – not simply sit at their desks and answer emails (just as easily done at home)? Absolutely. But should culture depend so heavily on being physically present at HQ? Probably not.
WFH, hybrid or all office, Covid has changed our view of work forever. This comes with the opportunity to create location-agnostic organisational cultures that will sustain employee welfare and motivation. Brand-led cultures that are iconic and inspiring. Cultures that will be the drivers of choice, retention, belonging and pride among a company’s most valuable asset – its people.