The employer vs. employee reckoning on “maintaining the culture”

That picture above is from a New York Times “DealBook” report on working after COVID, which is probably the 97,121st thing published on that topic in the last seven days. As you can see from it, the highest # of days that employers want employees in the office seems to be 3 (29%), and the highest number of days that employees want to be remote seems to be 5 (also 29%).

There’s a potential reckoning there, for sure. I think in a lot of white-collar, supposed “knowledge” work, we already had this push-back for years. In 2008, I was at ESPN in New York City. One of my direct co-workers was from Washington State; his family was getting together in Idaho for a week, at a lake cabin. He wanted to attend, but not take vacation. Our boss was demanding he take vacation. He kept talking about how the cabin and the mountain had WiFi and he didn’t want to burn vacation days on it; he’d just work while he was there. They had literally four straight days of fights about this, and I think eventually he was forced to use vacation, with the boss saying snarkily “Well, enjoy your family time.” But to all of us, even in 2008, pre-Obama even winning, it underscored that a lot of white-collar stuff can indeed be done remotely. Then we had another 12 years where that reality was out there but everyone trudged into offices most days, even though the distractions of an office are about a $588 billion GDP hit annually.

COVID shifted a lot of stuff. Exactly what it shifted and for how long and what the long-term repercussions are? We have no clue. But it’s going to shift something about our relationship to work, be that physical or emotional or both. Here’s what it seems like the first wave of change will be.

A push-back on definitions of culture

Culture is what you call a “suitcase word.” It carries many definitions to many people. Some people do want to wear jeans; some want nap pods. Some want opportunities for growth (many do, actually) and some want dry cleaning on-site. Some want access to the top dogs. Some want to leave by 3:50pm to get their kids and not be bothered. All these things are elements of “culture.”

The problem has long been that executives, who shape the culture but are also not beholden to it — if they decide they want different norms, they can shift those norms and now those norms are the culture, and the rest of us cannot do that — tend to hide behind the word. Because that was a run-on sentence, let me rephrase it: executives hide behind the word culture.

What does that mean? A few things.

  1. Executives like suitcase words because those words keep people guessing and thinking and having discussions with their silo about what exactly the words mean. As all those discussions are happening, executives can go back to focusing on what they want to focus on: money, growth, and deals. It keeps the peons out of the barn because the peons are too busy wondering “What did my SVP mean by ‘mission’ in the most recent all-hands?”
  2. Executives like to say that culture needs to “defined” or “maintained,” which is a fancy way of saying “control.” Front-line managers want control, and when they lack control, it’s one of the only things they can bitch to executives about and get any attention on. They want people in desks and rows and doing work where they can see them. Now, years ago I worked with a woman named Savannah who literally sat on Instagram from 8:30am until 6pm every single day. Not joking. She sat 10 feet from her boss and her boss thought she was a good little worker bee. So, oftentimes bosses know absolutely nothing about what their employees are doing — but they are comforted by the fact that said employee is 10 feet away, instead of in their apartment (gasp!) somewhere, or maybe grocery-shopping during the workday (heavens!).
  3. When executives mostly ignore front-line managers (common, it’s called “absentee management”) and then managers broadly hate their jobs and thus pay their hate down to rank-and-file employees (this is called “the decline of managerial experience”), what happens is that front-line managers look for anything they can get resonance on. That tends to be control. “Oh, you need those peons in-office, in the name of innovation?” That resonates to an executive. He will sign off on that. So now the front-line manager feels good (“I got attention up the chain!”), the executive feels good (“We will be driving innovation through connection, or something I saw about Steve Jobs and how he designed offices! Whatever!”) and the only one who feels bad? Peon Paula, who now has to brave commutes and subways and figure out her kids and her aging mom and all the rest of it.

This is where the reckoning will come: what does it mean to “define” and “maintain” culture when the word is inherently amorphous as is? Because if you go by the executive definition — which many of us have to, due to hierarchy — you’re just talking about control. If you go by the actual definition, you can’t define it, because it means too many things to too many people.

So is there an actual definition of culture, then?

No, not really, although this might get close:

  • The full context/slate of relationships between your people
  • What you allow to be permissible (if all the execs are lying and stealing, well, that’s your culture)
  • The process of how work actually gets done
  • Whether people catch each other’s backs

That’s what I’d call it, personally.

The idea of WFH vs. in-office or “hybrid models” comes down to all of these, but predominantly the third bullet — i.e. how work gets done. The funny thing about all the WFH discussions is how much they ignore. First off: the whole thing is basically class warfare. Second off: a lot of people hated working in offices with pointless small talk and people re-heating cod at 12:20pm. Third: it’s actually better for your “culture” in some ways to be largely remote. What the fuck? What do I mean there?

Think about a 10-person meeting on a video platform. It’s groan-inducing at one level, yes, but the in-person version would be bad too — and we all know the in-person version would be dominated by two people, i.e. the owner of the meeting and the biggest extrovert in the meeting. With a video meeting, for all its flaws, you can at least have an active chat and some call-outs to people for opinions, and you get more voices involved. It’s more involved in many ways than the standard meeting approach we take, which tends to be awful.

So, there are opportunities to build a “culture” and even, gasp, maintain a culture without defaulting to “random interactions” and “the need for innovation” and all this shit, all of which just means control.

And here’s a funny thing that happened on the way to the Cubicles Reopening: if you are so worried about someone grocery-shopping or meeting a friend for lunch or watching one Netflix episode on your dime, then why don’t you design a job for them where they don’t have the ability to do that? Why don’t you make the work meaningful and advancement-driven enough that they want to focus on for those 8–10 hours? If someone can get away for 90 minutes of errands and then maybe tack on a friend lunch and a streaming episode, good for them. It’s on you for not designing workflows properly, honestly.


Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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