How can corporate culture survive the remote-work challenge?
As soon as it’s possible to quit home offices and go back to work, one of the most popular choices is not to go back. When lockdowns end, so many people quit their jobs that the trend even got a name that would make a captivating novel title: ‘The Great Resignation’. The reason is not that people don’t like their offices: they are actually excited about leaving the house again. The main reason is what management experts call ‘employer branding’ (see chart below), which means how consistently a company keeps the promises suggested by its advertised mission, core values and corporate culture towards its own employees. As previously cohabitating workforce and management scatters into remote-workers, digital nomads, semi-commuters and office dwellers, many companies struggle to maintain their corporate culture remotely, in other words show their people what keeps them together as a company at all.
Take the three most popular corporate values according to this study: Teamwork, customer focus and respect. They have always looked great in websites and styrofoam lettering along corridor walls. But when colleagues don’t pass them on the way to meetings, lunch and toilets, how will they know that the company still lives those values. How will clients and suppliers? One problem is that behaviours are much more uniform (meaning much less diverse) online, which makes it harder to ‘act out’ cultural values. Another is that in a common physical space people warn or encourage one another much more often than in virtual ones about failing or succeeding to 'live' the firm’s culture. Let’s see how they work, one-by-one.
There is a reason why this is the most popular core-value statement in the world: in critical times, it splits opinions the easiest. The reason is the most obvious psychological trait in humankind, extroversion. People with an active and social temperament (extroverts) not only adapt to teamwork more naturally but actually like working in teams. For them, the attention they get from others is a motivator in itself. In a remote-work environment, they spend a considerable amount of their time reaching out to others whichever way they can: email, video calls, phone, text and instant messages, databases and if necessary, by shouting from balconies. For them, communication is a way to get things done. That tends to annoy their introverted colleagues, whose reactive philosophy is to solve problems and communicate separately. They need the mental quiet to do serious work, which gave the title of this fantastic book on introverts at work. In an office building, a closed door and hunched body language tells extroverts that introverts want to focus. (If that doesn’t, watch out for noise-cancelling headphones in open offices.) In cyberspace, extroverts must actually interrupt introverts to find out if they welcome interruptions, and introverts must isolate from communication until they have anything to say. The level of extroversion in the team can depend on individuals as well as the defining culture of the country or even city. Either way, if diversity is managed badly, teamwork collapses.
This corporate core value splits task- and people-focused colleagues the way teamwork pits extroverts against introverts. Practical-minded problem-solvers serve customers by, well, solving their problems. A bit like a brilliant medical doctor with a bad temper, they save your life while ignoring and annoying you in the process. People-focused colleagues, even if they have a degree in mechanical engineering, biochemistry or tax law, target the emotions of frustrated or outraged customers, ‘selling’ rather than ‘telling’ them solutions. In a virtual environment the concept of customer focus often fails because people-focused colleagues are rewarded for their proactiveness (“Six client calls a day, wow!"), while task-focused ones actually solve more problems, better and faster. In an office, customer issues usually enter the organisation through people-focused connectors, who then pass them on to task-focused problem solvers. Solutions go in a reverse direction: grumpy perfectionists fix the problem, caring communicators ‘translate’ the result for customers. But remote work puts everyone in direct touch with clients, which means that brilliant fixers fail at communicating and great communicators fail at fixing. Again, the ratio depends on the environment: too much talk is more likely in Italy or the Philippines, badly marketed brilliance in Germany or Japan.
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You know where this is going: if colleagues think ‘respect’ means they should agree to disagree and allow everyone to work according to their personal style, corporate culture vanishes and everyone fails. When I coach, train or advise leadership teams, I suggest instead that they imagine how respect works in a multifunctional team of tough professionals under pressure, like a medical team during surgery or champion-league sports team. Teamwork means everyone does different things in different ways, but they are tightly connected by a clearly understood goal, structure, roles and effective exchange of information. Customer focus means that first and foremost, the job gets done (the patient recovers, the fancy cup is theirs) and everything else is only done ‘right’ if it helps movement towards that collective (!) objective. Corporate culture is an outcome of these things, not a script on how to get started. Smart managers and executives ask their people about what a firm’s culture is and how well it works, rather than telling them. In changeable times like this (COVID, supply chain disruptions and the Great Resignation itself) they must ask again, and again. If they get negative responses, they must ask their people for improvement suggestions: introverts and extroverts, task- and people-focused ones alike.
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