If there’s one thing the pandemic made clear to the corporate world it’s that the ability to shift focus is critical. Over the past two years, management has had to wrangle with what comes next again and, yet again, after an extended period of workplace improvisation. And, they’re still wrangling. On any given day there are articles, op-eds, white papers, and podcasts serving up news and views on when, how, or if there will be a reemergence of the traditional office. I was particularly intrigued by The New York Times journalist, Ezra Klein’s, recent podcast titled “The Office is Dying. It’s Time to Rethink Work” .
The conversation with Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel discussing how the great retreat from office life could make work better for everyone prompted me to think about the topic from my perspective as both a long-time office worker, and a professional in the field of brands and what makes companies tick.
While I’m not in the business of making predictions and, while I don’t think the office is dead ,I can say with some degree of confidence that the office and how we work in the future will be far different from what we experienced pre-pandemic. As I said, however, I am in the business of building and nurturing corporate brands, and I can predict with great confidence that there is one factor that will be more critical than any other in determining organizational success in the post-pandemic work world. Companies that preemptively build, and actively reinvigorate, corporate culture before the dust settles on wherever, and however, we work will be those that experience a softer landing and a more robust brand. Waiting to see how it all pans out before addressing the culture question is not an option.
Why do I say this? Culture is the thing that holds an organization together independent of where people sit. Culture is vital to sustaining organizational values, and vital to sustaining organizational growth. It influences both employee behavior and consumer perception. As most business leaders will tell you, company culture isn’t something that is spelled out in a document. Unlike a mission statement, it isn’t carved in stone, or even on a plastic wall hanging, but develops naturally based on organizational values, behaviors and habits. It’s a collection of ethics and attitudes that characterize an organization and guide its practices.
Most vital to the “future of work” question, however, is that culture is absolutely fundamental in differentiating one corporate brand from another. It makes clear the critical distinctions within a competitive framework. What makes one company or brand relevantly better than another. Relative to this framework, culture influences everything that an organization does, from employee retention to the bottom line. The fact that the pandemic has forced people to reconsider what matters in their work-life balance means that a positive company culture is no longer table stakes. Today’s workers consider it as much as they consider salary and benefits when determining whether to stay in their current jobs, or look elsewhere. After everything organizations have been through these past few years, they should want to keep and attract people who are committed to their jobs, and committed to working in unison toward common goals. Given that culture is all about how people are treated and how things get done and, most of all, how a company performs within a complex and competitive marketplace, it should be put at the top of the to-do list.
Looking at it from a purely brand perspective, culture is that subtle, but significant, quality that makes Accenture different from McKinsey, Citi different from Chase, L.L. Bean different from Patagonia, or Apple different from Dell. It’s not what each company does on a purely functional basis. From one category to the next, they all offer similar products and solutions. What differentiates one brand from another in the minds of employees and consumers is who it is and why things are done the way they are.
Businesses can’t expect office life to be what it was pre-pandemic. Because the future of the office is in flux, we need to pay attention to aspects that may be jeopardized by the changing environment and, in my estimation, culture matters most. As we rethink the office scenario of the future, as the balance shifts from traditional working spaces to hybrid, or remote, or something as yet unimagined, it is essential to first think about ways to rework and, then, enthusiastically cultivate workplace culture. Managers must be able to see and seize opportunities – shift focus and shift ahead – now. They must figure out how to make the workplace a shared experience even if untethered from a physical space. Whether we will or won’t be back together in an office every day is not the issue. What is at issue is that those reimagining what the future of the office holds not diminish the role culture plays in holding everyone together to build teams, unlock creativity, solve problems and, most important, define the organization and differentiate it to every stakeholder’s advantage.