Cultural engineering – Neuroscience or carpentry?
Learning sometimes happens by accident. Very occasionally, it is a by-product of extreme (Chernobyl) or even inhuman (The holocaust) events. Covid-19 is one such extreme event. Whether leaders trusted their people or not, they had to let them work out of eyeshot.
Leaders might reflect on what impact remote working has had on productivity, factoring in wider macro-economic factors. The website ‘Great Places to Work’ states:
Working from home is just as productive as working in the office – possibly more so. A two-year study by Great Place to Work® of more than 800,000 employees at Fortune 500 companies found that most people reported stable or even increased productivity levels after employees started working from home.
We want you back
So what’s the big deal? Why don’t we just tick along with home working and enjoy the gains? I covered the issues in a recent post on why hybrid working is complicated, so won’t get into it here.
However the overall trend I am seeing is that the big players want their people back. So this uprooting can’t simply be an exercise in productivity. Possibly there is a concern about motivation? People working from home enjoy the benefits of greater cognitive bandwidth. Greater autonomy and not having to wade through rush hour traffic. This frees up headspace to do better work. But it also provides time for reflection, and that from an employer’s perspective is dangerous.
Not so fast
What if employees, now fully reacquainted with their families, decide that they like spending time with loved ones, taking the kids to school and sitting around the dinner table together. Or what if employees discovered the importance of movement. Prior to the pandemic, perhaps they saw movement as purely physical exercise and thus the equivalent of carbon credits (ie exercise permitted you to work at full tilt and at least delay the heart attack), but today they recognise the sensuous, cognitive and even meditative benefits of regular movement at varying degrees of physical intensity. This enlightened approach doesn’t sit neatly with the 9 to 9 office work model.
Perhaps the real danger is that people are assessing their work lives not just in respect of money, but are considering broader themes such as mastery, freedom and impact.
Whilst people generally don’t like having their lifestyle interfered with, many will be delighted with how the enforced reduction on related spending has made them richer. They realise that given the option of very big bucks and mandatory office presence or quite big bucks and discretionary office presence, they might well opt for the latter.
What’s their problem?
At the time of writing, at least in the UK, there is a sense that we are approaching a post-pandemic watershed and thus the cultural musical chairs game is about to restart. Interestingly an article in Chief Executive (thank you for spotting it Peter Thomas) highlighted the surprising downsides of striving to create a more employee-friendly workplace. In a nutshell, Tower Paddle Boards CEO, Steven Aarstol, decided to move from 9 to 5 to 8 to 1.
Productivity soared and then staff turnover moved from 10% to 44%. His cultural engineering experiment went kaputski.
Now a sample pool of one does not make for scientific research, so we should not jump to conclusions. But it did make me think about cultural engineering. Firstly what drives the urge to tinker with the culture? Are leaders looking to build a monarchy to secure absolute control? Are they looking to get the most out of their people? Are you focused on getting the best out of their people? Once this is clear, one can then choose to implement an aristocracy, blacken the windows or buy a ping pong table. But if you are looking to shift from one to the other, then you are getting into dangerous territory.
If it ain’t broke
My general recommendation is that if your cultural setup is yielding cash then don’t mess with it. For many organisations, they only have one source of cash. If their leaders were to start playing with the machinery, they are in danger of inadvertently sabotaging the organisation. The fact that the culture is underpinned by distrust, Stockholm Syndrome or generous remuneration is a detail.
I encourage organisations to run their cultural experiments in isolation, embedded in a variety of embryonic business models.
Mayday or payday?
But let’s say that your business is in freefall and people appear to be the problem. In which case a crude carpentry approach is recommended. Dismantle the feudal empires. Upend the recruitment process. Sack the toxic rainmakers. ‘Move fast and break things’ to borrow from Mark Zuckerberg. Whatever it takes to get back on an even keel.
You had better tread carefully if you need to bring forward the IPO of your high functioning startup or worse still you are so self-absorbed that you think you can get some column inches and ‘likes’ by tinkering with the culture. Best treat this as an exercise in neurosurgery. Announcing a ‘no clothes Friday’ policy, based on a recommendation by your (charges by the hour) handsy shaman, is unlikely to end well.
Petri dish management
Culture fundamentally exists to enable people to increase their chances of survival by co-operating with others in an agreed manner. In short:
- Use carpentry when the organisation and/or the individual’s economic survival is under threat.
- Use neurosurgery when looking for marginal gains and/or the individual’s reason for working with you is, at least in part, lifestyle driven.
- Use circumspection in all circumstances.
The increasingly porous nature of the boundary between the market and the organisation, coupled with the power axis shift from employer to employee, will require cultural engineering decisions to be based on hard science and not perceived employee happiness or leadership vanity.