Like our middle school basketball team, companies are artificial constructs built and maintained by individuals.
I played basketball in middle school. No joke. I break out in hives just thinking about sports. If you’ve ever seen me pursue anything athletic, you’ll be asking yourself why I was ever anywhere near a basketball court. I was also a 5’1” 12-year-old.
How did I get on the team? To get a group of us to stop skateboarding in the parking lot after school, the school administration thought it would be a good idea to get us into something athletic. Represent the school, you know?
And so off we went, running up and down the court Monday and Wednesday evenings, bouncing balls off our knees and out of bounds, traveling every other possession, and double dribbling like it was nobody’s business.
Knowing how badly 80% of the team played, our main (only) tactic when competing against other middle school teams was to run hard, wrestle the ball away from the opponent, and pass the ball to Mark (the only person who gave a crap). We did this happily. Eagerly even. We were well drilled, albeit in a tactic that required no real practice. But well drilled we were. That was our ‘culture’.
It wasn’t uncommon for Mark to have all of our team’s points during a game. It also wasn’t uncommon for me to jam my fingers against the basketball once a game. That. Hurts. Like. Crap.
Like our basketball team, companies are artificial constructs built and maintained by people – just groups of individuals aligned to walk down a chosen path, in lockstep towards a goal. Be that goal growth, or profitability, or world domination (like our basketball team).
The positives of this work-from-home (WFH) environment are many: more time with your kids, more time to address your health, less time stuck in traffic, and less money spent on gas. While the effects of WFH on our individual working habits have been explored in-depth, the impact of this new style of work on company cultures is only just beginning to take shape, and a clear downside is that the path that a company has chosen to go down becomes foggy. In a world where we interact with each other through a 6” by 9” window, we all dress in button-down shirts and jogger's bottoms, and we spend mental energy during meetings calculating whether we are ‘on mute’ or not, it becomes very easy to lose the narrative that informs a company’s direction – and by second-order effect – culture.
More than 55% of workers have shared that remote work has meant an increase in workload. Throw this on top of other responsibilities that have grown in importance (tutoring the kids, laundering clothes we didn’t know we had, and cooking, cooking, and, did I mention, cooking?) and we get less attention and energy available for team building activities at work – the kinds of activities that happened naturally in an office setting. Examples: random conversations in the hallway, the small talk in the elevator, and the weekend updates during mealtime in the office kitchen.
Cultures are inherently hard to maintain – they evolve, and without active support, they can decay. Moreover, they become infinitely harder to maintain when we allow individuals to make wholesale decisions on their own productivity – without guidance. Think of how much autonomy is built into everyone’s workday in this work-from-home environment.
Work culture is an artificial construct – it is the collection of actions, small and large, that employees and management practice every day. To invest in work culture is to build the frameworks that enable individuals to execute against a brand promise. Maintaining a culture is cyclical too. Great execution against a brand promise unlocks a brand premium, such that there is the creation of free cash that can be reinvested into the culture.
The best organizations are the ones that think about their culture and codify expectations. Richard Branson is credited with saying “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients,” and it’s true. Want to build a culture of service and accountability? Remind everyone. All the time.
When we think of great company cultures, many immediately think of the mega-cap companies, the Googles and Facebooks of the world, and point to those brands as beacons. But some of the best examples I’ve seen of organizations rising above adversity and doing the work to maintain culture have been in small businesses across the country. One such example? DOBI Real Estate out of Birmingham, Michigan. See their Company LinkedIn page for guidance on how to elevate culture despite the remote work environment.
Culture is constructed via small, frequent contributions – the kind that is even more important to make sure happen in a work from home environment. Without these contributions, organizations will see a breakdown in the ideals that they held pre-March 2020.
Every Chinese New Year when I was younger, my mother would push my two brothers and me to find something new (and preferably red) to wear. Nowadays, in my household, Chinese New Year is synonymous with new clothing – it’s automatic. I don’t question or debate it.
This is how culture works.
Until next week,