Culture. That’s a fully loaded word, isn’t it? I mean, pretty much on the same level as the other two ‘Cs’: Collaboration and Community. I bet, when asked, we all have a definition for it. I suspect it’s also a different one for each and everyone of us. However, when thinking about Office Culture, there is a single keyword, if you ask me, that comes to mind to describe it pretty accurately: Presenteeism. Shall we bust then that myth about how you can only build a company culture if you show up at the office daily?
Over the course of the last couple of years, I am pretty sure you have all read a good number of articles, blog posts and whatever other publications about how a certain collective within the workplace (i.e. senior management / leadership) is pretty much desperate about that corporate mandate to go back to work, i.e. back to the office. Otherwise organisations will suffer irreparable damage in their corporate culture(s).
As you may have noticed, I am not going to link to any of those disappointing write-ups in this post, as the mainstream news media has done a fantastic piece of work in trying to frame us all up with that false narrative that we need to save the industrial corporate culture by showing up at the office. You know, we will all, once again, get impregnated with it via osmosis. Oh dear, good luck with that! I suppose vast majority of those people haven’t heard much about the 11th floor syndrome.
Anyway, you would remember how a few weeks ago I started a series of blog posts with the intention of busting plenty of the myths we’ve been told to believe religiously about what remote / distributed vs. office work is all about. I first wrote about the subtle and nuanced differences between remote and distributed work. I also broke up the myth of the hybrid workplace. Today is the new chapter in that series in which we will talk a little bit more about that other myth you can only build a company’s culture in a traditional office. Period. Everyone back to work, no matter whatever you have done over the course of the last 2.5 years, in the midst of a pandemic, working away from anywhere.
The reality is organisations are struggling a fair bit in understanding what is culture exactly and how to get the most out of it. To quote the link I just shared above from a recent study conducted by Gartner:
‘For a culture to truly succeed, employees must be aligned and connected to it. Culture alignment means employees understand and buy into the culture of their organisation, while culture connectedness encompasses employees identifying with, caring about and belonging within their organisation’s culture’
Perhaps those same organisations, and the senior leaders who manage them, that continue to struggle to understand what culture is should be paying more attention towards the needs and wants of their employees to then begin to comprehend what intentional and purposeful culture has always been about right from the start: The people.
So, you may be wondering, how do we get to bust that myth that you can only build, foster and nurture the corporate culture of an organisation by being at the office with your fellow colleagues and, instead, help open things up a fair bit in order to start shifting the current toxic narratives that if you are not heading to the office every day you’re doing a disloyal service to the organisation, its culture and everyone else working there. Talking about fully loaded, nauseating sentences! Yikes!!
Well, it can be done pretty easily with a single question you can pose to anyone who vehemently asserts that the only way to build a corporate culture is doing office time rubbing it with your colleagues. Like in the good old times. Here it is though:
‘Are you saying then that our corporate culture, within our own organisation, can only be found within the four physical walls of the office? Is that all? Corporate culture is just a physical space we don’t control, nor have a say about it? Really?’
Then, pause for a minute. Add some drama. Pause again. Let them think. Observe. Let them repeat to themselves mentally what they have just said to you. Watch them collapse. Collect the pieces. Move on…
You may be wondering, what is culture then, right? Like I said, I suspect we all have got a definition for it and perhaps we may all be right, at least, with some of its elements. However, for this particular blog post I am going to stick around with a definition my good friend Dave Snowden shared across in a single tweet over 4 years ago:
The better phrase is that culture is an emergent property of multiple interactions of time. It cannot be designed. But that is where we started.
— ᗪᗩᐯᕮ SᑎOᗯᗪᕮᑎ 🏴 🇪🇺 (@snowded)
You see? ‘An emergent property of multiple interactions of time’. Notice the subtle difference here? Within that definition, there isn’t a single notion, nor mention, of a physical space, the traditional office, to realise it. To me, when thinking about interactions the first thing that comes to mind is the habits, the behaviours, the (business) practices AND the conversations we have with one another that constitute the grounding work towards co-building a culture. But, once more, Dave comes to my rescue developing the whole concept with a series of brilliant blog posts on Culture where this particular quote resonates with me big time to add some more about what I have just mentioned above:
‘Culture is a fluid concept, it has (sic) to be cultivated and can’t be engineered. Cultivation starts with an understanding of your local climate, soil conditions and so on. Understanding the here and now is more important than imagining a future; not that imagination is not important but we don’t start a painting with the colours’.
For those folks who may have been following this blog for a good few years already, doesn’t the above remind you of something we used to say about the power AND potential social, digital tools (i.e. Enterprise Social Networking platforms / ESNs within the workplace) had (and still have!) in terms of helping co-build a company’s culture, one conversation at a time, regardless of the space, whether physical or digital?
There you have it. BOOM!
Next time someone challenges you with the argument senior leaders can only build a company culture at the physical office while being surrounded by their employees, do me a favour, ask them:
‘Where have you been for the last 15 to 20 years when two-way conversations in social tools became the new currency from each and everyone of us in amplifying our, till then physical, collective corporate culture?’
Pause for a minute. Wait for their response. Help collect the pieces and jointly move on … We still have got a lot more of myths to bust with regards to remote / distributed work.
5 thoughts on “Myth Busting – Office vs. Remote / Distributed Culture”
Luis just catching up with your work. The idea about understanding the here and now of the culture is really resonating for me. A bit of a mistake I made in my current role. Lesson learned!
Thanks a lot for getting in touch and for the wonderful feedback comments! Yeah, I know what you mean. I am certain we have all fallen for that trap at some point in our professional careers. I would be included in that club, which is why I thought about writing on the topic as it reminds me about something I keep seeing within organisations, but that, my goodness!, it’s so incredibly helpful!
Situational Awareness. In the moment. With an opportunity to learn what’s going on around us / the business and adapt accordingly through lots of probing, seeking and sense-making along the way 😅👍🏻
Keep having fun, my dear friend! We are just getting started in this journey … 🙌🏻🙌🏻
I like to tell people that Culture is a result, not an input. People who try to manipulate it directly are like those who demand the result of a math problem with no formula.
In my opinion, there are a lot of people who make a living selling the idea that you can directly manipulate culture, and a lot of people believing them, harming themselves and their businesses in the process.
Thanks a lot for dropping by and for sharing such wonderful feedback! Indeed, I couldn’t have said it better in terms of how much ‘Culture’ gets bastardised by those who want to profit from it without giving it too much of a think of the potential consequences, never mind being both accountable or responsible for such profiteering activities around culture.
It’s actually one of the main reasons why, a long time ago, I decided to call it out when I’d see folks trying to manipulate culture for their own profit without thinking of those consequences I mentioned above. Just aiming for the quick buck is something that makes me irk a fair bit and why I thought this blog post would be rather appropriate to set the tone of what we can expect with those folks: call their BS and help avoid others fall in the same trap!
No, thanks! We certainly can *do* better and should!
Many thanks, once more, for sharing that helpful feedback! I very much appreciate it 🙏🏻😅