With near empty offices what happens to office culture?

What happens to company culture without everyone in the office most of the time?

For months now we have been working remotely in most parts of advertising and media.  Many offices have been closed.  Around the world many have opened up again, although in the UK this is recent and then just for a proportion of the workforce in many cases.  The Economist states “The fight over the future of the workplace has just begun”, and points out that the office structures we have grown up with are based on the emergence of corporations in the late 19th century.

It is time to re-imagine what the workplace is for.  If you took someone who might have known Charles Dickens and time travelled them to an office in 2019 they would be undoubtedly shocked and surprised by mobile phones, by computers and by the number of women around.  They are less likely to be at all shocked by the overall look of the place.  Lots of people with their heads down at desks working away with some managers walking around occasionally to see what they were up to.

Lockdown and Covid have challenged this dramatically.  People have had radically different experiences. Working from home has been a curates egg – good in parts.  Suiting some people some of the time, leaving some reluctant to go back to how it was, and others desperate to return to what was normal.

This is unlikely to happen entirely.  A hybrid model of remote and flexible working, with offices re-imagined for the better is likely.  These experiments are underway, and they do raise another question.  What is office culture without everyone in the office?

Our global MediaCom ceo Nick Lawson has frequently said that a great culture is crucial.

Without it, jobs become transactional, not much fun, lacking purpose.  With it the team pull together, go the extra mile for each other, and enjoy the time spent working.  It fuels morale – that magical element that drives confidence, enthusiasm and work ethic.

Armies need good morale, and they don’t work out of an office, so let’s look at lessons from the military.  Artis International, an Arizona think-tank have conducted research into fighters in Iraq.   They have correlated bravery in action with soldiers having “fused” their identity with fellow soldiers.  So an active programme of building team identity is crucial to a good culture.

We are not soldiers.   Brands with Values chief Adrian Walcott pointed out at a recent conference Media360 panel that we might better off if we think like farmers.  Measure and cultivate your culture so that you get the best from everyone.  Walcott said: “You need to understand what is going on in your ecosystem at work so that you can create shared mindsets and values and actively manage this on an ongoing basis.”

This is manifested in how everyone behaves, and is not dependent on the bricks and mortar of the building.  It is about the lived experience of being at work, in the office or remotely.  It is crucial for us all to be careful to curate a sense of belonging for everyone.

Of course we are not farmers either.  For a culture to be successful it needs to be owned and worked on by everyone at work.  Culture isn’t something that happens to you.  Management cannot dictate a good culture.  Managers can and should create policies to prevent a toxic or bad culture but a good culture has to be owned by everyone.  A good culture at work is something that every employee creates, enhances and contributes to, every day.

The analogy for me is more like one of a chorus, in sync, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, where there is time sometimes for a soloist, but where everyone’s voices coming together creates something that no-one alone can claim for their own.  Where every member listens to each other, makes their best contribution in their own way. Where sometimes there is dissonance, but where it always gets resolved.

In a great culture each person enhances each other’s performance.  Helping the collective is rewarded.  Without everyone in the office most of the time leadership of a good culture is even more crucial.  And in a good culture there are cultural leaders and advocates in every single seat, wherever that seat is located.



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