If you think back to the last time you met someone new, I can almost guarantee that at some point you asked, “So, what do you do?” We don’t ask: “What are your passions?” Or: “What was your latest streaming binge?” As individuals, we consider where we work as an integral part of our identity—and companies are no different. Companies are judged based on what they do, sure, but what they represent, what they care about, and what they ARE, are becoming just as important to their corporate culture.
A company’s culture was always shaped, at least in part, by their workplaces. The office sets a framework for the culture. Be it casual Fridays, catered lunches on Wednesdays, and/or parties for birthdays, culture grows out of patterns and shared experiences. The office’s location plays an important part in this. It also determines the wages and the cost of living for those working in it. Location was always one of the most important factors to finding and attracting new talent.
The question is now that more companies are allowing remote work, how can a company create and maintain a culture? “One of the most important things I always come back to when I’m talking about a company’s culture is the energy of it, and you just can’t feel that energy if rooms are empty and offices bare,” said Jimmy Chebat, Founder of ZiZo Technologies, a company that focuses on workplace gamification.
As we start to regain solid footing about where work is happening, there’s still plenty to figure out. What happens to company culture when the physical representation of the heart of a company, the office, is dispersed or eliminated altogether? How do companies keep their culture alive when workforces get distributed? And, in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter?
The easy answer is yes, it matters. “People come to work because they feel valued as a member of the team and they stay at work because they find meaning in what they do,” explained David Russell, CEO of Manage 2 Win, a Sacramento-based management consultancy. “Recreating that bond in a remote environment, whether partially or entirely remote, is essential to happy employees and a successful company.”
Offices will continue to play an integral role in company culture but that role will continue to change. The ability to adapt and be flexible to new requirements and requests may be the most important amenity an office can have. There are a few strategies that companies are adopting to create culture. How well each of these strategies works and how the office fits into it will determine the demand for offices around the world.
Anywhere with high-speed internet
The pandemic has shown the world that much of our office work can, in fact, be done at home. This has opened up Pandora’s box for many companies, allowing them to both reduce their expenses and open up their recruitment processes to other (presumably less expensive) areas. Even with these benefits, companies adopting remote work will need to consider the effect that remote teams will have on their company’s culture. New team members might never have the opportunity to meet their co-workers face-to-face, affecting their ability to connect with them. Also, some companies worry that without being able to speak casually with their bosses, companies might become more hierarchical and, therefore, less agile.
While creating a culture with remote workers is hard, it is not impossible. Interestingly, over a third of workers feel that company culture has improved since the start of the pandemic. Interestingly, while workers haven’t seen each other in real life, or IRL as they say, colleagues may have had more face time than before through Zoom and the like. While finding work/life balance was difficult for many, the shared challenge of working from home can create a bond between colleagues. Creating company culture in a virtual environment isn’t easy, but once it’s created, why change it? Some companies, especially tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Spotify and outdoor-centric company REI, have accepted their new virtual culture and are happy with employees working wherever the wind blows them, at least on a daily basis.
No two companies have the same culture and some groups cannot wait to get back into the office. Whether it’s to get out of their homes or to get back to previous levels of productivity and collaboration, there are companies that work better together and enjoy that characteristic of their culture. This may also be job-dependent; sales teams might want to use the office to entertain clients or creative teams might want to spend more “down” time together to create new ideas.
No matter which part of a company values the physical office, it will be important that those who want to come to the office will be enticed to do so. That means that workplaces will need to be much more purpose-built in order to serve the needs of each person. This might mean spaces designed for large team meetings, intimate client presentations, or even soundproof rooms for concentration or recording. The hard part about this is that it requires offices to learn how their teams and individual employees are interacting with the offices and what they want from them in the end. While this is no easy feat, a combination of data collection and interviews can help companies understand what is needed from their offices and how spaces can be changed in order to facilitate those needs.
The Goldilocks model
Happiness is the most important element when creating company culture. Turns out, one of the best ways to create happier employees is to give them more freedom; if choices are limited or monopolized, we push back. The pandemic gave workers more control than ever on when and how we work (although “where” was mostly at our own homes). While many struggled with this new flexibility and “choose-your-own-worklife,” the freedom created will be hard to claw back.
While being at home all the time isn’t the right fit for some, the traditional arrangement of being forced to spend nine to five at the office isn’t appealing for others either. The “just right” answer is obviously a combination of the two. The hybrid model is often enabled by software such as tenant experience or tenant engagement solutions that work to connect colleagues no matter where they physically are. These apps make it possible for teams to schedule when they’ll all be in the office for collaboration while ensuring social distancing and other health practices are followed. However, management plays a vital role in keeping the company culture alive and well. “A popular way to keep everyone together even while they’re physically apart is having daily check-in meetings,” said Russell. “While it’s a quick discussion, everyone on the team gets to hear what everyone else is doing. Without everyone being in the office, you don’t overhear anything and you don’t know how that could relate to what you’re working on.”
New year, new “office”
The pandemic has made us rethink much about our lives. It has also caused companies to reconsider what exactly they need from an office. This is much more than a logistical decision, as Brent Hyder, President & Chief People Officer at Salesforce, said, “This isn’t just the future of work, this is the next evolution of our culture.”
As companies dip their toes in the water of the next work environment, some are experimenting with something different altogether. Some are looking to virtual reality as a way to create an in-person experience. For example, Sisense, a business analytics company headquartered in New York with employees around the world, recently had a meeting on a rooftop deck overlooking the Mediterranean. The thought is that these virtual worlds will create an enjoyable environment where employees will be more willing to spend casual time in, creating the types of “creative collisions” that office designers have always sought to facilitate.
Another option for companies looking to create in-person experience, and all of the culture that it can foster, could be booking tickets for an entire team for some shared business travel. This could come in the form of conferences like it did pre-pandemic, or it could be replaced with retreats, team building activities, or even far flung exotic team vacations.
While exactly what the future holds for companies and their culture remains in flux, the office will always be an important piece of who a company is. A gathering of like-minded people to work towards a common goal is powerful and there is no replacement for physical proximity and in-person meetings. However, the right mix of remote and in-office work depends on the company and the culture it inspires. As buildings evolve to support flexible work schedules, health and safety requirements, and the cultures of companies, the conversation will continue as we all search for the perfect work environment.