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5 questions every head of should be asking to avoid Culture Rot




TL;DR

I predict Big-name brands like LEGO and Disney are going to face a culture crisis! Once adored for their work environments, these giants could soon find themselves grappling with "Culture Rot." Why? The COVID era gave employees a taste of freedom and work-life harmony, sparking a major rethink of what a job should be. As offices reopen, it's a tough choice for the employees: shut up and return to the old ways or chase new opportunities but give up the big name. It's time to ditch the 2018 playbook of the office being the place where work happens and embrace flexibility, autonomy, and genuine care for employees and it starts by asking better questions


5 questions every head of should be asking to avoid culture rot

(Reading time: 7 minutes)

For a long time now, large brands have relied heavily on the brand, EVP and office experience. However, that nice shiny thing might be the thing that will keep many heads of people, culture and learning awake at night and be the thing that starts to rot your culture from the inside out.

The thing that will kill your culture faster than a return to office is relying on your pre-Covid EVP (Employee Value Proposition) I've spent over ten years helping many prestigious companies design their EVP and internal Services, product interactions and ExperiencesToday am going to give you five more impactful questions you should be asking about returning to the office so you don't get culture rot.



Your Work Cult Is Gone

Pretend you work at one of the world’s most renowned brands, such as LEGO, Disney, or Redbull. These are the crème de la crème of workplaces for many professionals; not many other companies can get near them for brand recognition and places people want to work In these companies, employees joyfully head to their offices daily, with a positive cult-like commitment to the organisation with a smile wider than the moon. These organisations have a well-established EVP and enjoy significant employee brand recognition due to the time and value they invested into making work pre-2019 awesome. However, 2019 rolled in, bringing with it the outbreak of COVID-19. The pandemic introduced a sense of urgency and a pause in employees' ability to physically go to the office and brought in a series of changes.

One of which, was was employees got the opportunity to question the cult-like aspects of their work culture. This unplugging from the 2018 intravenous of the daily culture cool aid allowed employees to start seeking more autonomy.

They appreciated the freedom to design their workday around their personal lives without compromising work responsibilities and self-identified what work is and how much they may have over-indexed in their work self and less in their non-work self.


The Awakening

During this period employees began to realise that their job was just a job and while it was something they enjoyed doing, it gave many of them a douse of rehab to start prioritising other aspects of their lives outside of work. There was an uptake in hobbies; people started to paint, write, and do all the little things they said they would do when they got a minute or when they retire

You can’t unscramble eggs

As time went on and the world got to grips and overcame Covid, the pre-Covid whispers of a return to the office growing louder and louder, with a hope that employees would forget all the self-reflection and awareness they got from working from home and just tap back into the cool-aid.

The Employee Dilemma

Employees at prestigious brands started to face a unique situation, unlike an employee at, say, a large Financial Services company who can easily find employment at Lloyds, HSBC, Barclays, and Monzo. A LEGO employee, on the other hand, has limited alternatives if they want to continue building their impressive CV of shiny big names, that pond becomes small very quickly leaving the employee with two options: Accept less flexibility and return to the office for two or four days a week

(yes Disney I see you) while it it nice to see they now say onsite rather than a hybrid, you have to ask why on earth this role needs to be in the office).

Option 1: Look for opportunities elsewhere. Some will take the hit and go to a small company and value their flexibility and autonomy over fixed “personalisation” and sexy names on their CV But some won’t and instead go for option 2 Option 2: Rot the culture

Many disgruntled employees will return to the office with a bitter taste in their mouths and a whole list of questions bouncing around their minds like a 1960 pinball machine

  • How human-centric is this business

  • How much do they care about me as a human,

  • How fickle are the values they pinned up if they don’t live by them...


Ten minutes looking at Glassdoor you can see a moment in time in many organisations, where the narrative of return back to office has started and over time this starts to lead to the onset of Culture Rot.


The Culture Rot Cycle

This underlying discontent begins to spread, affecting individuals within the team, slowly chipping away, from the DM on teams to the chatter in the canteen all reminiscing about the flexibility they had in the Covid days. How life was somehow more flexible, we managed to not only do our jobs but also had the time to do the odd job around the house in the day time which allowed us to spend quality time with the family at night … those were the days. Over time this eventually penetrates other teams, ironically similar in pattern to how COVID-19 spreads.

In the blink of an eye, a company that was once filled with brand ambassadors having the super sexy office now becomes the company that forces it people back and refuses to grow from the shock and exposure of Covid as an organisation

The beacon of light that was used as a lighthouse to signal future talent, now becomes the anchor weighing it down to the bottom of the ocean with other shipwrecks, lacking any of the core DNA that once made the company great

Nobody Likes Forced Fun

The forced return to the office not only causes emotional distress, poor mental health, and job dissatisfaction but also removes the perception of autonomy and control from employees. In what seems like the speed of a sneeze the talk of a four-day workweek has disappeared. It’s like many of the big shiny badge companies have all but forgotten the most significant lessons learned from Covid-19:

  • A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't make everyone happy

  • A human-centric and personalised approach to work can and should exist

  • To change the structure of work, we need to challenge work norms, internal values, beliefs, and policies but it’s worth doing

  • Implementing these changes requires significant reform and redesign, and progressive thinking but again it’s worth investing in.


How To Stop Culture Rot

We could take a system approach, perhaps looking at the culture through the "Swiss Cheese Model," this will allow you to understand how multiple layers of issues develop and how layers of the cheese in isolation doesn’t look that big of a deal until layer flaws align resulting in the manifestation of Culture Rot. We can attempt to reframe the challenges and reinvest the resource in being a truly people-centric company. The challenge with this is all will require significant time, money, and resources. The first step is to stop asking weak ass questions


Asking The WRONG Question

You know the types of questions I mean, ones that are asked with a mindset pre-covid and a dash of Amnesia of the last three years, they tend to sound like this:

  • How can we make coming back to the office great

  • How can we have the best office so people come to work

For as long as we ask these questions, we will always be asking the wrong questions.

These types of questions may have served your brand and EVP well when you had the cult vibe in full swing before COVID, but people have woken up, and the thing that made your great pre covid is going to be the thing that is your downfall post-COVID.


Asking The RIGHT Question

So rather than asking how we can make the office great so people come into the office why not ask:

  • How do we become the first truly human-centric organisation

  • How can we help our employees find meaning and satisfaction in the office should THEY want to come to the office

  • How can we shift the choice and responsibility of coming into the office from the organisation to its employees

  • How could the office and how we work in enable and support our people needs and motivations that is situational and built in context?

  • How can we reset, restructure, and reignite what it means to be part of a team in and out of the office


The Rub

Ultimately, organisations must find a balance between operational needs and employee well-being and preferences. A flexible approach that considers the diverse needs of the workforce will always be more effective in maintaining a positive and productive work environment.

While a challenge like this will always be a large investment, the longer tail goal will always be a bigger reward than top spot in some BS top places to work survey. The USP of the organisations that will take your talent are not the ones with the sexy offices, it will be just asking better more human-centred questions about the future of work and with the changing population of people coming into work and demanding more they are the right questions to be asking.

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