Companies are doing remote work and culture maintenance woefully wrong.
During lockdown I saw so many companies and People teams falling all over themselves trying to find the coolest new, online experience or multi-player game solution in an effort to foster employee connection during a time when most of us had never experienced any degree of extended isolation for longer than several hours. While the practice mostly achieved its objective during a time when human interaction was, essentially, forbidden, People teams and companies are still relying on these forced fun techniques as a way to create or preserve culture in a remote work setting. And that is what I see as a massive failure. I'll explain.
How many of us remember our parents screaming, "Go outside and play!" anytime we crossed the chasm to the annoying side of their patience tolerance. The very definition of forced fun lies in this low-key mandate to do something enjoyable, even if all you wanted to do is continue robo-asking, "Why?" after every previous explanation given by a parent before their full frustration set in and got you angrily banished from sight under the guise of having fun.
Companies are leaning into a dangerous trend that, I believe, is one of a few, top reasons employees are heading for the exits in droves. These forced fun shenanigans have become so corny and contrived to a point where they're downright ridiculous. And, believe me, I've witnessed some doozies during the lockdown that I both wish to unsee and whose wasted time I'd like stapled back onto my life expectancy.
There's an overwhelming, underlying assumption that people need forced fun in remote work environments. That somehow our home lives are so starved of actual fun that we somehow look to work to provide it as if some savior. Sure, to an extent that may have been true during lockdown, but I'm pretty sure the majority of us are good-to-go on sourcing fun for ourselves now. And I assure you it's a much different version than what's on offer from our companies.
I'm often amazed at the lengths companies and People teams will go (read: expensive hours spent) researching and implementing cookie-cutter, online experiences in hopes of wow-ing a crowd that is already, woefully Zoom-fatigued from sitting in numerous, back-to-back meetings...most of which are poorly ran, far longer than needed, and with little-to-no ROI of time. "Read the room" should be a tenet in every company's Operating Principles.
We're officially overdue for a mindset shift here. We're so busy trying to replicate the good ole days of face-to-face office environments (they weren't that great...can I get an, "Amen.") that we're resorting to robbing people of their fundamental right of choice. Sure, some may see this as a diatribe and prescribe relaxation to me in some form. However, I'm a business dude, through and through. I come to work to do great business. Anything beyond doing great business I see as an accessory. Sure, I'll partake in order to be a team player, but only to the extent that I choose. Once forced fun crosses over into frivolity, I'm out. I'm happy to leave all that to those who I see as less serious, focused, self-confident, or socialized as I am. If that makes me a jerk or anti-social in your eyes, that's on you. I'll be over here researching my ass off, trying to create efficiencies, predicting our top competitors in 3 years, starving for our lunch, or wrapping up my day's work at my job so that I can grab a quick bite and get working on a myriad of personal projects that actually bring me joy.
Please get this. Employees don't really need forced fun. What they need is more time in their personal lives to connect with themselves, family, and friends and create meaningful relationships that aren't also based on executing in a professional capacity. We've blurred the lines a bit too much here, folks. And it's evident in your misdiagnosed "Great Resignation" assumptions. Look a bit closer and ask the right questions and you'll understand exactly what I'm talking about.
Companies should now be focusing on what I call a concentrated work model. This, essentially means, concentrated work within a shorter workday with one or two meetings, tops. And those meetings should be run perfectly with tangible ROI, next steps upon exit, or critical information for everyone who attends.
Meetings have become the devil. (Can I get one more, "Amen" real quick?) I've worked in numerous industries over my 30+ year business career and I've literally only seen meetings run incredibly effectively and efficiently a handful of times. And, trust me, I've taken ALL the notes to be able to replicate the experience as best I can when at the helm. Unfortunately, attendees have fallen into habits that derail even the best meeting MCs. Tardiness, wandering commentary, audible sidebars, MUTE button cluelessness, non-teed up presentations, etc. As such, meetings suck way more than when conducted in person. And when you aggregate the number of terrible meetings over the space of a day, a week, a month...what was once grating eventually becomes unbearable. Enter quiet quitting.
I believe companies need to lean into a concentrated work model by leveraging amazing tools like Figma, AirTable, Notion, and Loom that promote focused creativity, non-time-consuming knowledge share, and focused execution and transparency. Instead, we're taking the easy route of pulling people back into office dynamics that were decent-to-bad pre-COVID and to environments that lack real intention or innovation and replete with solutions for the previous environments' issues.
By leveraging these tools we move from a highly manual mindset and execution into those that empowers people to create their own concentrated workdays with all of the information, connection, and transparency they need to do so. As such, no two employee's workdays will look exactly the same. Sure, overlap may be necessary for check-in or contextual meetings. But those should be the exception, not the default currently filling our calendars day after day.
If everyone leaned into this way of working, there would no longer be a need for 40-hour workweeks. Employees would come to work, be hyper focused, clear on what they want to achieve that day and, once achieved, flash deuces and seek more fun and connection in their actual lives.
It confounds me that companies and People teams would rather saddle employees with forced fun to meet some arbitrary 40-hour work week (paper) requirement instead of giving that hour back to their employees who can use it to create real connections outside of work, thereby making them happier, healthier, and consistently showing up to work excited to be there. Unfortunately, companies are trying to be all things to all people and assuming that employees actually want what they're serving up. Sorry to be the one to tell you: it's kinda not working. It's corny. Borderline cringe. And creating the reverse of the dynamic you're actually trying to achieve: engagement.
Really take a deep dive into the data. Give existing employees a 1-10 scale question about how fun your forced fun activities were. Ask your current employees if they'd rather have an hour of company-mandated forced fun or a workday that was an hour shorter? Better yet, ask your employees if they'd rather have a workday that mandates no more than 2 meetings, using Loom to present more complex concepts, and focused work that results in about a 4- or 5-hour workday OR continue with the current workday choreography including that hour of forced fun. I'll bet you my LandRover that the last option would lose epically.
No one "needs" forced fun anymore. We're no longer in those times. People want to do great work, knock it out in the shortest time possible, then bounce and go live their lives, more than ever, after being locked away for 2 years. How do we not see this?
A "Great Mindset Shift" in how we approach and execute business day-to-day, employee-by-employee, is the only thing that will stem this exodus. I truly believe it. Unfortunately, we're already learning the hard way that companies would rather rely on forced fun and the laziness of forcing people back into offices and in-person, poorly run meetings (and resulting power dynamics) instead of leaning into the myriad of productivity tools we have at our disposal today that will make meeting overload a thing of the past and allow people the opportunity to craft their own environments that are highly productive, collaborative, transparent, efficient, and, yep, fun in less time and with far better results.
Phoenix is coaching and supporting American billionaires, CEOs and executive teams in tech, retail and banking for over 25 years. He also founded and created MEGA Assistant University, a revolutionary skills and mindset “boot camp” for top Executive and Personal Assistants who want to level up quickly and begin forging a mutually successful business partnership with their executives and teams. Phoenix holds a Bachelors of Arts in European Studies/Civilisation from Trinity College Dublin.