To me a perfect working culture would be one that achieves results in an environment that cultivates productivity, creativity and worker satisfaction. Companies currently deploy many tactics with similar goals. However, the focus usually ends up being on perks and fun, supplemented by a healthy sprinkling of courses and other processes to turn managers into better leaders.
I’m going to argue that most of these initiatives — although well-intentioned – merely create a glossier veneer rather than something that fosters dramatically new thinking or better business results. I don’t however discount the value of company outings, gym memberships and paid snacks; these benefits build relationships and signal management interest in the team’s welfare. Indeed, to truly transform, we have to employ strategies that more deeply reflect what makes employees productive and motivated. My top three are all deployed to some extent in most companies, but not at a profound level that completely alters the mindset of an organization. And, they are the following:
Strategy #1: A new and deep respect for time.
“It’s really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time” – Steve Jobs
Most advice I read with respect to time management focuses on the employee. Much of this advice is useful, except there’s one small problem: you only control about 10-20% of your day. The rest involves doing things or being places that you are instructed to; these things and places sometimes have, let’s say, minimal bearing on your own and sometimes even the company’s objectives. So, spending energy optimizing 20% of your day does not sound like the best way make impact on your productivity overall.
If organizational leaders truly want strong ROI on time, they need to first stop assuming it’s in unlimited supply. Also, they’d need to think critically about the ways they demand time from their teams. One company that has taken a giant step in time efficiency is LinkedIn. Executives at this company have isolated one tragic use of time and done away with it: the idea of ‘presenting’ for the sake of getting everyone up to speed. They know that orally transferring knowledge is often inefficient because of interruptions and sidetracked conversations. It’s also not a process that moves a company forward. There, if you call a meeting you don’t get the standard hour time slot; you get much less. You must publish background reading in advance. Then, the meeting starts with fruitful discussion and decision making based on that precise information. No rehashing. Heaven. Sheer heaven. I almost cried when I read this post on their process. Just based on that practice, I’d work for them. Like, tomorrow.
A strong org culture would go one step further by allowing employees to question the value of processes, meetings and events for the sake of focusing on the real priorities. Delivering value for time would have to be mandated at both corporate and personal levels.
Let me take this a step further and get a little crazy. We not only want to free up time to focus on other priorities but we also want to free up time do DO NOTHING! <gasp>…or whatever your version of nothing is. ‘Nothing’ is about having free time to recharge, gain perspective, energize or otherwise improve your mental, emotional or physical health. The huge barrier here is actually not one’s own desire to take a break, but rather the societal and work cultural norms of always being or appearing busy.
It’s a badge of honor. Right now, we equate value and progress with time invested in work and personal lives. To punch a hole in our day for the sake of ‘nothing’ is to suggest we are not ambitious or productive. This is both a conscious and subconscious feeling that lives within us, and drives us to push on.
Unless we’re persistently tired and overwhelmed (as we love to tell our friends and post on Facebook) we are seen as not pushing ourselves to the limit. That’s a bad thing apparently. Until we are not only accepted but truly admired for our ability to create space in our lives and work day will this phenomenon become widespread practice. We’re just not there yet. Right now we feel just as much guilt or sensation that we have lost a step as we feel invigorated. Zero sum gain at best.
Most importantly, this newfangled thinking has to originate and be enforced from the top. In a later post I make this point in more depth as it relates specifically to productivity.
The other big practice that makes work mundane is that of compiling information. Happens in most departments. Corporations especially are terrible for ignoring the power of systems and instead deploy heaps of manual labor to gather and format data for senior management. I’ve often said that in my marketing roles that I spend most of my day either presenting or producing information. Imagine the impact on productivity and work satisfaction if we spent more time acting on information instead of producing it….?
Strategy #2: Embrace diversity. Completely.
“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” – Imitation Game
Note the picture posted below. That’s my team that was working for me in 2006 at the time I left Johnson & Johnson. The picture was from a small going away, after-work event. Notice how they are all dressed kind of the same, in striped tops? This was their homage to be for all the abuse I took over a similar (cashmere!) sweater I occasionally wore to work. I was labeled the ‘hamburglar’ by the tan-khaki-and-powder-blue-shirt crowd. So, ya, my team didn’t quite get all the ribbing either but rather appreciated who and what I was. This was their way of telling me.
But this isn’t an isolated incident. As I became more aware of workplace dynamics, I noticed that – even in a company that values and champions diversity – there were many subtle social processes that served to shoo people out of the margins and back into line. Sure, mostly everyone at a minimum respected diversity along dimensions of race, religion, sexual orientation and gender but aha, those were well-policed. When it came to matters such as the food people ate, clothing, hobbies, hair styles, work and communication styles (as a start), norms were sub-consciously defined and regulated in very nuanced ways. If you didn’t fit the mold, co-workers would find their way to let you know.
This all started even in my first few months at J&J (again, I’d like to emphasize, a company that in my mind breeds mutual respect more than most). I had made a positive first impression in my first post-MBA marketing gig and led to something that should have been solely a compliment. I was standing at the coffee cart grabbing my morning brew along with about a dozen others who were milling about. An executive walked up to me and asked if I was available to attend a business dinner with a prospective partner because he thought I’d be a great person to have there. I accepted. Then he goes “oh, do you have someone to bring…like a wife or date or something?” I was new to the area and wasn’t in any kind of dating mode so I said that I didn’t. So, in front of all these other people he replies with a very deflated-sounding “oh….never mind” and walked away?
Is that a huge deal? Not really. But later on that day and for months later, I chewed on this little incident, wondering if there was a template for what I was supposed to be that was the best fit. What goes with that is the feeling that you’re quite the ‘right’ profile. I questioned that about myself not long after I got in the door.
These moments go unchecked because they attack dimensions of diversity that are not the political ones, so they are tough to complain about with traction. And even for the people who are in fact clearly diverse or of some minority, they come to realize that they will have a much more even experience if they look and act just like everyone else, in the ways they can control.
So imagine how any employee might feel if they were repeatedly subjected to even the slightest form of ridicule or teasing about some random aspect of their appearance or behavior. One joke or unflattering comment is not worth complaining about, but I’m here to tell you it’s never just one. And other people notice. Look at the sweater pic above. My team picked up on the org phenomenon without me ever letting on that it bothered me a bit. Suddenly, you create this undercurrent of understanding that to be different in any way is to be abormal…and to be abnormal is a bad thing. It systematically crushes your soul….and causes you to hide who you are, how you think and what you believe.
Now let’s extend this phenomenon to the process of innovation and creativity. It’s laughable to me that companies complain that employees aren’t creative enough; they don’t stick their neck out and take a stand for the unconventional. The root cause of this problem can be seen in the day to day operation of the org culture, which every day teaches employees that there is tremendous downside to standing out. Even a little. And in my personal experiences, I came across quite a number of people who were privately brilliant and creative but kept their thoughts and ideas under wraps because they were already branded outliers for some superficial reason.
In a company I would theoretically build, I would staff it with a whole bunch of what the rest of the corporate world considers broken toys. Yes, there would be (a few) documented cultural norms about how we work and respect each other. But I would otherwise foster a culture that embraces diversity along every dimension imaginable. I want diversity to be so prevalent that it becomes the norm. Being allowed to more candidly be our authentic selves will undoubtedly open doors to entirely new ways to think and work.
For any leaders out there, I would also ask that you be mindful about subconsciously setting norms by forcing compliance to behavior or activity that shows ‘you are a part of the team’. This is a common practice among managers who feel they are building team cohesion when in fact they are drawing people out of their comfort zone and suppressing the sense of an individual self. Please be careful about under what conditions you go down this path; you may be breeding behaviors that are more destructive than constructive.
Strategy #3: Accelerate work-life integration.
We have a conundrum. Technology has afforded us the ‘luxury’ of working at all hours. Yet, we seem to read countless articles from experts to tell us that breaking away from our work — mentally or physically – can make us far more productive.
My solution, then, is to allow our personal lives to officially(!!) backwash into the work day. The concept goes far beyond telecommuting, which is one of the most common work-life balance techniques deployed today. Soon we will see corporations (and not just startups) shut down for an hour in the afternoon for health or errand breaks. Multi-tasking in meetings will no longer be seen as rude and could include some participants stretching on yoga mats while they listen to or participate in discussions. Kitchens will be installed in offices to facilitate healthy food preparation. We’re talking next generation integration that will blur the lines even further between home and office, and the activities therein.
In order for these strategies to take root, employees need to be engaged, not just sold. Our world is changing in how we learn and socialize; these evolutions need to be reflected in the workplace…and the ideas need not just come from executives. Culture-building is a collaborative process that features diplomatic openness without fear of repercussion.
But, overall the unifying theme here is freedom. Freedom to be who we are. Freedom to work how we think is best. Freedom to express ourselves. Freedom to unify our lives with our work. Freedom from the infrastructural elements that shackle us. If we can truly instill this new sensation of liberty in a way that is adeptly balanced with accountability, we would create a culture that is unparalleled in how it innovates and achieves.
Finding your Productive Zone
Why Creativity is Rejected
The Modern Workplace, Forbes, May 2015
Update: July 2015
I came across this article from Forbes last October about how to attract top talent (for a startup, but has universal relevance). Culture is clearly a significant factor. One culture element is labelled ROWE, Results Only Work Environment. Somewhat consistent with my #1. The danger is that many companies can always find a way to rationalize spending six hours on something under the guise of it tying to a result. I still like my angle better: challenging for high ROI on time. This way you’re not only metricking relevancy for time spent but also value!