Company cultures are running on fumes: should we return to the office?

By Guy Corbet, Fourteen Forty

We’ve learned an awful lot about working from home.  It has given many people the freedom to combine work with more family time.  It has been the miracle that has kept the economy spluttering on through the lockdowns.   

Many now don’t want to go back to the old normal drudgery of commuting to the office. 

In the cold light of day, and in the long run, will that position really be possible to maintain?  And are we seeing that company cultures are already running on fumes? 

The arguments for remote working are well rehearsed.  Tech makes things possible that weren’t before.  Laptop workers, in the knowledge economy, have more freedom for their time.  They can claw back the commuting time, and cost.  Central business districts are hollowing out, so why carry the overheads of office space? 

Will the hype of hybrid working run out of steam?  

In the other camp, many shortcomings are acknowledged.  While Zoom is transformational, it’s not great for everything.  So many firms are envisaging the “clubhouse” office.  Workers will congregate as staging posts between meetings and for times when face-to-face would be better, such as creative planning. 

Nevertheless, some questions about hybrid working have not been answered.  High among these is how to replace the watercooler moments which are critical to informal training and development, especially (but not exclusively) to young workers. 

As we’ve seen after previous recessions, it is common for the economic recovery to come with the hangover of a skills shortage.  Low investment in talent during a down turn has its consequences later.  New working arrangements that appeal to laptop workers’ nomadic aspirations now may have a similar cost later.   

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” 

The watercooler is also critical to building company culture.  Company culture can too easily be dismissed as a soft measure, not that important in this cauldron of global disruption.  But that is not the case.  Management guru Peter Drucker coined the phrase that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.   

Culture goes to the heart of what any business offers.  It is based on and defines how people behave towards and support each other, and the standards they set for the work they do. 

It is what defines the experience that their customers get.  Whether they are happy with the service, and will come back.  Or whether they will in future look elsewhere. 

Very often it is the culture that differentiates one firm from another.  It is the competitive edge.  Competing firms tend to fish in the same talent pool, so they employ people that are more similar than they may like to concede.  What differentiates these firms is how those people work together. 

The switch to home working to get through the lockdowns was momentous.  But a successful short-term bridge is not the same as a long-term strategy.  And that is what now needs to be addressed. 

One question will be whether some firms choosing to fight the war for talent by offering hybrid working will be if they gain more than they lose.  The likes of Facebook are no doubt strong enough to absorb any sacrifices. 
Many others will need to be on their very best game to come back from the downturn.  Many of them should be asking if their corporate culture coming out of the lockdowns is already beginning to run on fumes. 

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