In 2020, Your Company Faces a Culture Apocalypse. That’s A Good Thing.

I am publishing this on June 8, 2020. Last week our culture saw the convergence of a global virus pandemic, the George Floyd protests that morphed into riots, and a bevy of articles explaining how bad the unemployment numbers in our culture really are.

The world doesn't look like it is going to suddenly snap-back or simmer-down. The chaos looks like it will define our summer and (in case you're not aware) the November elections loom up ahead on our smoldering horizon. Naturally, this upheaval has us all re-evaluating our personal and professional decisions. Makes sense. This year people are talking about 'apocalypse' and melt-down. Destructions of 'biblical proportion' within our culture and bonkers conspiracy theories – oh, wow, the conspiracy theories!

conspiracy theory

The hyperbole is thick.

Like the electrical charge and smoke in the atmosphere, the alarmist language makes it difficult to discern what is actually going on. Like you, I'm not entirely sure what is happening, but I do know two things: the root definition for the word 'apocalypse' is 'an uncovering or revealing'. I also know that our work culture, patterns, and rhythms are very much 'in flux' at the moment.

Where we go from here will say quite a bit about what we value the most and what we are willing to risk. Finally, this 'apocalypse' is going to reveal who is all talk and who comes to play ball when it comes to the strategic work of culture building.

There has been so much talk and publications surrounding 'work culture' in the last few years. Maybe you noticed the articles – how to retain millennial talent, how to boost productivity, authentic internal and external facing values in a world of glassdoor reviews, etc. Oh, don't forget the ping-pong tables and brew on tap. We are so crazy over here – and crazy productive!

Work culture has surfaced again.

Last week, J.T. McCormick published an essay on CNN that you might have missed nestled as it was among all the alarming headlines – Why I Will Never Let Our Employees Go Fully Remote After the Pandemic. It was a solid piece- well written and insightful. He mentions that Twitter and Facebook are shifting to more remote workers, but he says this presents 'inherent dangers to our company.' He argues that spontaneous social interaction is essential because it breeds psychological safety. Remote work would stunt long-term innovation and growth. Remote 'culture' doesn't really exist. There is 80% less communication than when a team is in physical proximity to one another.

We all understand the tremendous 'up-side' of remote work:

The allowed time flexibility for households juggling kids tossed out of classrooms, no hour-long commutes on congested freeways, all that money saved on 'business attire' and microwavable office meals. The title of McCormick's article includes the word 'let' – 'why I will never let our employees go fully-remote.' It acknowledges that our teammates would much prefer (even beg the boss?) to be fully remote.

McCormick's piece revolves around the survival of the company and he, naturally, thinks in terms of maximizing productivity and innovation. Bosses do worry about those sorts of things. Authentic culture-building does translate to longterm success. 

Pair McCormick's pragmatic concerns with Daniel Coyle's fantastic title, The Culture Code, published in (what feels like eons ago) 2018. We find a compelling case for eyeball-to-eyeball work. Coyle explores the secret sauce of 'highly successful groups.' Grab this title if you have wondered why some teams/companies just seem to cruise along in productive, synchronized health and award-winning giggles.

It isn't accidental; it's by design.

Here are a few ingredients to the secret sauce:

  • close physical proximity
  • profuse eye contact
  • touch (fist bumps, hugs, etc.)
  • short-energetic exchanges instead of droning speeches
  • mixed teams
  • few interruptions
  • lots of safe space for questions
  • active listening
  • humor and laughter
  • small attentive courtesies.

You might notice this isn't zoom-compatible activity. Coyle says being around these kinds of groups with serious chemistry is 'physically addictive.' He goes on to say, 'like any language, belonging cues can't be reduced to isolated moments but rather consist of a steady pulse of interactions within a social relationship. Their function is to answer the ancient, ever-present questions glowing in our brains. Are we safe here? What's our future with these people? Are there dangers lurking?'

working in the office

When we aren't worried about our belonging – we are free to do our best work, our most expansive thinking, and delve deeply into collaborative construction.

Remote work simply can't do this. Our team has been 'fully remote' for months as we complied with state and local orders. We hated zoom calls from the beginning, but we've made it work. Last week we had workers return to our shop – in staggered shifts at first until we see what unfolds. We made this decision for several reasons.

  1. In the last eight weeks, on zoom, we didn't add one real joke – one in-shop phrase or custom.
  2. We know we are better together. We are activated, energized, and explosive when within the same walls around the same table. The ideas are more vibrant, the solutions more concrete, the clients better served.
  3. People are complicated, complex, and fragile. We are all bolstered by team members who deeply care for us and know we are strong and weak all at the same time within the same hour on a Tuesday afternoon.
  4. A team that bleeds together and fights for the small and large victories will outperform the mercenary mentality. Remote work creates the isolation that translates to self-preoccupation over the needs of the team. It just does. I wake up reminded that I am the center of my little world instead of 'getting in the huddle' with other people I care about.
  5. I'm a better housemate, father, husband when I'm at home 'out of the office' than when the lines are so completely blurred. The work bleeds into other relational time and everything suffers.
  6. Like Coyle states in his book, 'One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core, their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. This task involves many moments of high-candor feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling when they confront the gap between where the group is, and where it ought to be.' Conference calls and 'your mic is off' tiled cameras simply do not hit the mark.

So why is facing this 'apocalypse' or 'revealing' such a good thing for your business?

This moment requires us to be honest about what is most important and what price is too high. Sure, not paying for commercial space, reducing overhead, solving certain HR quagmires is appealing. If we say our culture is critical to success, then this is where the rubber meets the road. The moment forces us to rise to our ideals, face fears, and get creative about how we go forward. If it was all words, if it means less to our organization now than back then, well – so be it. If decision-makers agree that remote work yields a better outcome than deeper, relational interactions, then at least we can strip the old slogans off the walls and be done with stupid social hours burned over awkward cocktails.

We will walk in more truth no matter which path we choose; in either case, the platitudes will evaporate and we will see things as they are. 2020 is proving to be quite 'revealing.’

Brand culture development and management take time. Attention to fine detail and systematic construction is what we’re here for. When you need to communicate effectively you need brand culture development. We’d love to help your culture thrive. Hold on to your hat!

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