Culture is Everything. Long Live the Office.

Culture is a key variable for organizational success. Even in a post-COVID world, culture is driven by the extent to which people can explore, engage with, and be energized by each other.

Even in these challenging times, the variables for organizational success are unchanged: Culture; Recruiting/Retention; Brand Reputation; Customer Experience; and Risk. How organizations achieve those variables may have changed dramatically, or not at all.

Key questions to ask are:

1. How will we create a culture and physical environment where the workforce wants to work?

2. How will we provide teammates with technology tools and mindfulness training all while promoting physical and psychological safety?

Your answers to those questions may be informed by two pieces of research, one hot-off-the-presses, and another that’s older but as relevant as ever.

Culture is Everything

My pal Daniel Forrester is the founder of THRUUE, a consulting firm whose focus is organizational culture. So he may be biased, but he believes that for any team or enterprise, culture is the defining competitive advantage.

THRUUE just completed a survey of leaders across industries who concluded that the extraordinary externality of the COVID-19 pandemic will force a transformative reset in corporate culture. What matters most now is:

  • Agility
  • Physical and psychological safety
  • Leadership 
  • Trust

Contributors to the survey, of which I was one, concluded that leaders must ask critical questions about culture and strategy. Among them:

  • What new risks must we grapple with given all the resets in people, process, and technology?
  • Did we strengthen or weaken the social connection bonds between employees, customers and community?
  • Did we listen? Did we show empathy? Can we listen anew?
  • What does resilience mean?
  • How will we get ready to get employees back safely?
  • Can we make positive cultural changes necessary to arrive at a new normal poised for growth?
  • What technologies do we need now to complete the sense of human connection?
  • How do we design new environments?

The report ends with a leadership call to action: listen with empathy, measure to verify, and negotiate a stronger culture. After all, organizational performance is driven by people, and people are driven by culture.  

Work from Anywhere? Yes. The End of the Office? Not So Fast.

I don't always agree with Harvard, though some of my dearest friends have spent time in Cambridge (their basketball coach Tommy Amaker is a treasure, and alum Peter Cook may be the best architect in D.C.). But in the article Workspaces That Move People, HBR got it right. It's not new, but it is as relevant as ever.

“We must recognize office space as not just an amortized asset but as a strategic tool for growth,” the authors write. Performance improves where there is exploration (“interacting with people in many other social groups”), engagement (“interacting with people within your social group, in reasonably equal doses”), and energy (“interacting with more people overall”).

Key excerpts from the article: 

  • “Few companies measure whether a space’s design helps or hurts performance, but they should. They have the means [sensors, activity trackers, smartphones].”
  • “After deploying thousands of badges in workplaces ranging from pharmaceuticals, finance, and software companies to hospitals, [researchers have] begun to unlock the secrets of good office design in terms of density, proximity of people, and social nature. [Researchers have] learned, for example, that face-to-face interactions are by far the most important activity in an office. ... data suggests that creating collisions—chance encounters and unplanned interactions between knowledge workers, both inside and outside the organization—improves performance.”
  • “Spaces designed to promote [exploration, engagement, and energy] increase the likelihood of collisions—and the data repeatedly demonstrate that more collisions create positive outcomes. We don’t measure the content of interactions, but that doesn’t matter. When collisions occur, regardless of their content, improvement typically follows.”
  • Think of the offices not as real estate but as a communication tool. “Thus strategy, features, and value become more important than cost and efficiency. You’d choose the e-mail provider with the best collaboration and file-transfer features; you can think of space investments the same way.”
  • “Thomas J. Allen was the first to measure the strong negative correlation between physical distance and frequency of communication” (dubbed the ‘Allen curve’). “But since the office is no longer just a physical place… It would seem that distance-shrinking technologies break the Allen curve, and that communication no longer correlates to distance. Wrong. The Allen curve holds. In fact, as distance-shrinking technology accelerates, proximity is apparently becoming more important.”
Source: Harvard Business Review

Taken together, the Culture After COVID survey report from THRUUE and Workspaces That Move People research from Harvard provide ample evidence for a truth that seems to have been forgotten of late: An organization’s performance is optimized only when its people are at their best, and people are at their best when they’re together, exploring, engaging, energized by each other. It’s up to leaders to figure out how to maintain that kind of culture in a post-COVID world.

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