Is Corporate Culture Overrated?

Is Corporate Culture Overrated?

Kurt Cagle 31/01/2022
Is Corporate Culture Overrated?

I had a question asked from Marilyn Carlsen about my thoughts on teamwork vs. culture, especially in light of remote work.

I will state out the gate that I am an introvert, and while I (like most people) have become more extroverted over time, this no doubt colors my opinion significantly about the roles of corporate culture and teamwork both.

One of the most enjoyable projects I have ever been involved with was a remote project that took place over seven months involving the creation of a translator between two complex law enforcement specs. The project was managed well, there was strong feedback between all participants using Slack, Confluence, and a continuous integration framework. There were some insane long days, and yes, the occasional argument or two, but there was a real sense of accomplishment at the end of it, and even when a person dropped out or in, there was a fast onboarding and exboarding process, and we could tangibly see the result of our work forming daily.

One of the worst projects I was ever involved with as one in which the project manager decided to fly the whole team out to a rented office for three months. We were on top of one another because there wasn't enough space, and there was far too much gamesmanship and malicious gossip and attempts to carve out the more glamorous parts of the projects by various team members, even when it was a bad fit. In the end, we got very little done, and far from being a bonding experience, many people ended up leaving the company not long afterward, ruining more than a few casual friendships in the process.

Now, these could be seen as isolated incidents, save for the fact that over my career I've been in both situations often enough to be dubious about believing that proximity is essential for teamwork. If anything, I'm coming to believe that too much "teamwork" is actually bad for an organization, because many tasks require concentration, something that is hard to come by when you're stacked like cordwood in an open office. I've seen too many managers that take advantage of a lock on their door to ignore the problems, despite the fact that the role of a manager is to make sure their reports are productive.

Ironically, with remote work, managers have to do more work precisely because they can't whip out the door periodically to make sure that everyone's nose is to the grindstone. They have to look at what's being produced, have to more closely monitor potential problems, and have to more concretely set priorities and goals for their workers that aren't just restatements of the terms of an RFP. Many managers don't like that, which is why they want a return to the good old days where "teamwork meant something" (and why many are now retiring).

Corporate culture, for the most part, is simply another term for the office. I've noticed something. On Unified Communication channels like Zoom or Teams, there's a pattern developing where the first ten minutes or so of a meeting ends up talking about cats, or the weather, or similar topics, and some managers are beginning to use such venues to get people to talk about outside projects they're doing or recipes or something equally non-business related - in other words, to talk about human things.

At first, I thought that this was simply a way of holding off discussing things until everyone showed up (and I think it was), but increasingly, it is in fact replacing the water cooler "discussions" with something that may in fact be healthier - a sense of shared conversation that isn't work-related, the acknowledgment that life exists outside the 9-5.

I think this relates to the origin of the modern corporation after World War II. During the war, soldiers had to work closely with one another, because it was the only way that the longer-term objectives could be accomplished. Afterward, a lot of what went into contemporary corporate culture reflected what the young men and women who served in the war first experienced. It's why even today the typical motivational pitches use war or team sports metaphors - defeating our competitors, achieving victory in the marketplace, going for a win or a touchdown, even a Hail Mary pass, for when the odds are against you.

Companies have mission statements with high-sounding goals, yet all too often those mission statements make absolutely no difference whatsoever to the day-to-day running of a business, which is why they make no difference to the long-term ethical behavior of those who run that business.

A few years ago, one of the big companies not too far from here created a draconian culture where departments were pitted against one another, where competition was rewarded while collaboration was looked down upon, and where people would be fired if they happened to have the lowest job review ratings from their managers, regardless of whether they were actually at fault for anything or not. Most of the people there hated the corporate culture, and if they were vested would stick it out to the day that they vested and not an hour later.

Eventually, the CEO was called on to the carpet after several significant missteps by the Board and was encouraged to retire, not because of the toxic culture that had been created but because the shareholders were not seeing the returns on their dividend checks that they had previously. The new CEO was thankfully more human, and also more capable of looking beyond the "perceived" corporate culture and recognizing that the existing culture was actually hurting the company in just about every way imaginable.

For a while, there was a trend among companies to want to create a bubble for their employees, something that would keep them solely focused on the good of the company, even at the expense of their health, their families, and their longer-term personal objectives. Bins of snacks, energy drinks galore, exercise equipment, nap pods or video games or pool tables or indoor cafes complete with small trees all seduced their employees to stay in the bubble. Yet at the same time, there was an implicit understanding by those same employees that being seen to take advantage of these perks too frequently (as in much at all) would get them expelled from paradise. Both of those are examples of corporate culture, and neither is healthy.

Teamwork is necessary - while one person could do many projects today by themselves, few people are so skilled in everything that they could (or would want to) do it alone. However, what drives a team forward - everyone having meaningful work that challenges them but that's not beyond them, clear objectives about what is being produced (and why), good communication between members when they need help but also good trust that they won't need that help any more than necessary - is not something that requires people working on top of one another. Indeed, it can be argued that the reason people like working from home is that for the first time in their careers, they are not being treated like either children or potential criminals within their own respective organizations.

It is also worth flipping the argument on its head. All too often, the dialog has been framed as why are workers so resistant to returning to the office. Perhaps the real question should be why are their managers so insistent that they do? It's not really about security - indeed, there have been fewer security incidents since Covid-19 than there were when everyone went into the office every day.

Teams are actually now producing tangible trails - video and transcription - of every meeting made, making such meetings searchable in ways that most historians would have drooled over. Moreover, those meetings are taking up fewer hours in the week, as such meetings are taxing for everyone involved, not just the poor introverts. Productivity initially dropped after Covid after people were struggling to get things under control, but productivity has actually increased considerably compared to pre-Covid levels since then. Everything is under version control so that even a catastrophic disaster becomes more recoverable, and people can (and admittedly do) work at night and over the weekend because they have the means to do so, not because that's when the office is open.

So given all of this, what are the arguments for returning to the office? Mostly they come down to the following:

  • Facilities Costs and Decisions. You just signed a brand new five-year lease a few months before in January 2020 on a high-rise office on the 45th floor, with a great view, and four floors beneath you where all your employees will be busily making your company profitable, when you hear word of a contagious flu-like disease beginning to spread. Two years later, you're sitting on a lot of empty cubicles in a commercial market where everyone else is facing the same situation. Some businesses have already capitulated, selling while they could, though not many. The virus would eventually be conquered and people would rush to return after two years sitting in their home offices. But now a serious doubt is beginning to creep in. How much longer will the flu be around, and what happens when the rush to sell happens? If the lease is close to expiring, do you renew it? These keep senior managers awake at night.

  • Security and Trust. There is a common sentiment that most people are inherently untrustworthy. Unsupervised, they will steal your company secrets and sell them to your competitors, will abscond with office equipment, computers, and software, and will, gasp, play solitaire on their laptops when things are slow. What's worse, if those people work from home, they may also be working for your competitors on the side, and you just can't have that, can you? Security is an interesting use case because while it can be a legitimate concern, none of these things are actually pre-empted by employees working on site. What's more, as the pandemic has accelerated the move to cloud-based infrastructure, the securing of IP assets in the cloud increasingly favors remote working. Indeed, one of the biggest bugaboos of security - the espionage agent looking over the shoulders of someone on an airplane or a cafe - becomes a very secondary concern in a WFH environment.

  • Extroverts and Introverts. Extroverts generally love offices, the more open, the better. There's more chance for interaction, for playing political games, for asserting yourself over others, and building fiefdoms. The power symbols are here - the corner office, the reserved parking space, the rows upon rows of cubicles while you have privileges, or at least the chance for same. Those same extroverts don't understand why introverts especially don't want to come back to the office, yet without the introverts, the office seems lonelier and emptier.

  • The Effects on Wages. Most company cultures subtly discourage people from comparing salaries with one another, even though this is generally illegal. However, that bubble is breaking down, and as it does, it is fueling a not-so-quiet migration in search of better compensation and more flexibility in working conditions, and the ones that are migrating are generally the workers that companies can least afford to lose. Talent tends to follow Pareto power laws - twenty percent of the employees are responsible for eighty percent of the profit, but that twenty percent is generally pretty savvy about their own value, and are in general the hardest to hold onto.

  • Losing Employees. The worry among managers is that their best talent will walk away with their IP in the process. In a sales-oriented regime (which primarily held sway up until about 2000), CEOs worried most about losing their best salespeople, which is why salespeople in most organizations that were even remotely effective usually did quite well in the long term. That started to change after 2000, to the extent that technical and creative staff, in general, are being seen as can't lose assets, but that transition is far from uniform. When this knowledge worker staff was onsite, it was easy enough to both not see this and to keep those knowledge workers diverted, but with the shift to remote work, there are simply more temptations (not all of them monetary) for competitors to lure away one's best technical or creative workers.

The problem with all of these for the employer is that none of these are disadvantages to the employees as well. The cost of computers, while not cheap, has dropped enough that anyone with sufficient technical skills is likely able to afford a setup that is better than they likely would get at work. There are, to be sure, many places that still require specialized hardware, software, and space, but even that's facing pressure as digital 3d printing becomes normalized.

Now, one day relatively soon, things will reach a point where the existing economic system will collapse, and most of these issues will become moot. That doesn't mean that there won't be something replacing it - there will be, and I think the first outlines of what it looks like are visible now, but that's grist for a different post.

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Kurt Cagle

Tech Expert

Kurt is the founder and CEO of Semantical, LLC, a consulting company focusing on enterprise data hubs, metadata management, semantics, and NoSQL systems. He has developed large scale information and data governance strategies for Fortune 500 companies in the health care/insurance sector, media and entertainment, publishing, financial services and logistics arenas, as well as for government agencies in the defense and insurance sector (including the Affordable Care Act). Kurt holds a Bachelor of Science in Physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. 

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