How can we move beyond ‘managing’ one-size-fits-all workplace culture and think about world-building or cultivating a hybrid ecology in the post-lockdown period?

Can online working reach escape velocity?

The debate about whether – and how – to return to the office will soon become much less theoretical, at least for countries that enjoy low COVID-19 infection rates. At the beginning of the lockdowns, we were hopeful that a sudden enforced period of remote work would force a re-think of how management works in modern organisations, and perhaps accelerate much-needed reform.

Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t really happened for the most part, as we have all been too focused on coping and getting through these weird times. New ways of working have indeed emerged, both organically in traditional organisations where management has allowed it, and also in new teams, startups and functions where there has been no legacy system to hold people back.

As Daniel Davis writes here, there are several reasons why people who prefer ‘remote’ working might still be pulled back into the gravitational field of office-based working. But I suspect that if and when people are suddenly required to commute back into cities or to sit through nonsense physical meetings just to please needy managers, the debate will be thrown into sharp relief and we might yet see a period of further change.

Image by Egnez from Pixabay

How can we involve everyone in world-building?

A key point often missing from this office vs ‘remote’ working debate is that it is not just about the physical location of work, but rather how we work and how we connect and coordinate with each other. It is about smart, online-first working versus manual, analogue work processes that require an army of management ‘water carriers’ to join things together.

One of the questions I have posed to some of the leadership development cohorts I have been teaching during the pandemic has been this: “where or what is the fabric of your organisation when we no longer go to an office?” In other words, what holds things together? Is it processes, rules, manager-led meetings, reporting, or – in more advanced organisations – is it now finally the digital workplace?

We talk a lot about the responsibility of leaders to create and curate an environment in which their teams can thrive, but what does this mean in practice? One metaphor from the huge gaming and movie industries is the idea of world-building, as outlined in this post by Alex Danco. In some ways I find this a more practical and richer frame of reference than tackling just purpose, ‘values’, culture, etc. as individual components, which could help us think through how we create hybrid work models that combine the best of online working with our innate need to work together in co-located groups.

As Alex writes,

“System problems cannot be fixed in one step, nor can they be fixed in a sequence of linear steps. Why not? Because when systems find a steady state – which is probably where you’re encountering them, if you’re setting out to change something – they’re ‘steady’ not because they’re static, but because they’re dynamically held in place by feedback loops. If you try to change one variable, you can apply as much effort as you like, but the minute you let go, the system will just snap right back to its original configuration.”

But the key question is how to involve the workforce in this process. This is not just for leaders, managers or consultants to define and design. The NYT deal book newsletter had some useful observations recently on how the function, location, organisation, culture and schedule of teams could lead them to different versions of hybrid remote-office working – and I agree it is important that we don’t seek one overarching approach per organisation. But as Stowe Boyd commented on this research in his excellent Workfutures newsletter,

“… in what I call emergent organizations — where individuals have high levels of autonomy and leaders trust workers to find a balance between what is best for the company and for themselves — this discussion would not be structured as a unitary decision to be made by senior leadership. Instead, we would see a network of decisions spread out across the organization, and the results would emerge, individual by individual, rather than being imposed from on high.”

The paradox of safety and the immune response

Even apparently modern, progressive organisations sometimes struggle with the confidence needed to empower their workforce to play a role in ‘world building’ decisions. Basecamp’s founders were in the news this week for banning social advocacy and political debate in the workplace. In some ways, this might be seen as a sensible defence against the highly polarised, defensive nature of public debate in the United States and some other countries, where political activists of various persuasions sometimes seem more interested in fighting a culture war than in accommodating others with whom they disagree. But in this case, it seems perhaps to have been a heavy-handed response to introspection about negative aspects of the company’s internal culture and inappropriate chat.

There is no doubt these issues can be tricky in today’s political and cultural climate, which has led many organisations to pursue a risk-averse, often bland and controlled engagement culture to avoid anybody taking offence; but organisations exist within wider societies and cultures, so it seems like a bad idea to prohibit any discussion of how our work fits into this wider world. In fact, as this interesting Aeon piece by a medical anthropologist argues, healthy cultures grow by being challenged and this can help develop social trust in groups of the right scale and size, so trying to wall our organisations off as totally safe spaces may not be ideal:

In 1994, the immunologist Polly Matzinger introduced an immune system model in which our antibodies don’t respond solely as a matter of defence. They respond, in her view, because antigen-presenting (dendritic) cells stimulate immunologic responses. Although the immune system remains defensive in this view, Matzinger’s argument shifted the debate ever so slightly from levels of self-preservation to information-presentation – from excluding outsiders to understanding them.

The idea was radical in immunologic science, but mundane in anthropology. Countless anthropological arguments saying much the same thing about self, awareness of ‘the other’ had been around for more than a century (and obvious to other cultures for millennia), but the assault on self-preservation through extroverted risk finally entered bench science with Matzinger, appearing not only as ‘new’, but in a form familiar enough to bench scientists to sound plausible.

Starting with a collective mental health check

This is just one of the apparent paradoxes that modern leadership and management need to wrestle with, as we emerge from our enforced isolation and try to find the right mix of in-person and online working: we need psychological safety for teams to function well, but we also don’t want a totally sterile culture. But having been through so much, it is probably wise to start by focusing care and attention on both individual and organisational health in our teams.

To that end, I would recommend this piece by Geoff Mulgan summarising some of his research into how we consider collective mental health in organisations, and also a simple and useful team health check method shared by our friend Erin Casali at Automattic.