Stay home, bake bread

When we first locked-down in our homes, almost a year ago, many began to experiment with new hobbies and crafts, pacing ourselves to a new and slower lifestyle. Some took up baking, others knitting. Those with the means – and the sense of adventure – even used lockdown to sell their city abode and move to the country.

As always, fashion trends reflected the zeitgeist, and the internet fashion aesthetic #cottagecore came of age – celebrating an idealised, rural, simpler life that’s more harmonious with nature. (And you didn’t have to be Gen Z to jump on that particular bandwagon.)

One craze I found fascinating was the huge interest in baking bread. Specifically, baking sourdough bread. The ultimate in go-slow activities, sourdough takes time to cultivate and requires constant attention to keep it alive as its culture ferments over a number of days (and potentially for years if you keep feeding the same ‘starter’).

It struck me, as we were nurturing the culture for our collective sourdough, that we are at serious – though inadvertent – risk of neglecting the company cultures that have taken years to develop, pre-Covid. Just as it takes time and a particular approach to make sourdough, the continuous attention it needs to ‘survive and thrive’ is analogous to how company culture is created and maintained.

John Mackey, CEO of the Whole Foods Market chain in the US, is passionate about creating the distinctive Whole Foods culture in every one of his 500 stores. And he does it by beginning, much as we would when making sourdough, with a starter culture.

Whole Foods’ starter culture is found in the successful and established store managers and team leaders who embody what Whole Foods stands for. These people are chosen to set up each new store so that just enough of the starter culture is present (and fed daily) in the company’s ethos, practices and behaviours in the new store. Mackay acknowledges that each store, by dint of its location, people and unique context, will have its own flavour – but the culture, wherever you go, will be undeniably Whole Foods.

But what makes a good ‘starter’ in the first place?

Many of the ingredients of our company cultures have been predicated on people being together, sharing a space and engaging in human practices. Even in global companies with dispersed teams, the starter culture was enough to embed the core of a firm’s ethos, regardless of location. But now that many organisations are largely, or even completely, remote and isolated, what does this mean for your company culture?

More importantly, how do you maintain – or create – a vibrant company culture in the new world of Work From Home? And why should you care?

Remote working vs flexible working

If you are an executive leader – a CEO or an HRD, say – and much of your workforce is now working from home, you may be turning your attention to an organisation design and employee offering that builds on what we’ve all been through this last year. The easing of lockdown restrictions may result in a shift from remote working (where everyone who can work from home should work from home) to flexible working, with flexible working arrangements based on the need of your business and the desires of your people.

The issues to consider are many, but here are just two that, if not addressed thoughtfully and with purpose, could have significant unintended consequences for your business.

A two-tier workforce

It’s hard to cultivate a feeling of ‘we’re all in it together’ when we’re not all in it together. Perhaps the greatest threat of flexible working arrangements is that they create tiers in your workforce. And this in turn creates resentment, lack of collaboration and loss of camaraderie – potentially destroying the starter culture that has taken years to build and nurture.

This is because the ‘flexible’ in flexible working doesn’t apply to everyone. You can’t be a flexible employee if your job requires you to put bags on an airport carousel, provide vaccinations in a health centre, or MOT a car. Hands-on companies and sectors have both desk-based and non desk-based people. How does institutional knowledge, personal relationship-building and in-the-moment problem-solving happen when knowledge workers are separate from those engaged in practical work? And what new class of employee does this create?

The tensions between those ‘on the tools’ and those ‘in the office’ already exists to some degree, but I’ve seen them very well mitigated when people eat their lunch in the same place, move freely between each others’ workspace, and formally and informally interact with each other all day long. If the knowledge workers are sequestered at home, the deep understanding of and respect for what the other does, is easily lost – only to be replaced by divisions between the groups that will be hard to repair.

Even where your entire workforce is made up of knowledge workers, not everyone will want to work from home often while others will want it to make up a higher proportion of their working week.

Those who are long weary of an overcrowded commute, or the stress of managing a school drop-off before a mad dash across town, will breath a sigh of relief at flexible working. But if you’re a 21-year-old living at home, or are in shared accommodation, getting out into the world every morning is what makes you feel alive.

So while the young migrate back to offices, perhaps older employees (those with kids, bigger homes and no worries about the heating bills) skip the commute and drink their coffee from their Nespresso pods. Batch-cooked quinoa for lunch at the kitchen island, before heading back to the study to resume working life on Zoom, isn’t a hardship at all.

But when all those younger folks realise they endured the commute just to sit on calls all day with work-from-home colleagues in the comfort of the suburbs, it’s easy to imagine they’ll soon feel resentful. And you begin to erode your culture.

Learning from our elders

A number of years ago, a young man joined our team straight from school. What a breath of fresh air he was – and as a team, we took our responsibility towards him very seriously. We weren’t just teaching him how to do the technical aspects of the job, but also the social expectations that people have of each other in the workplace.

One day, he offered to ‘make a round of tea’. He was told by my PA that I like my tea made in a small pot. When he came back, laden with a tray, I was given a pot of hot water and a cup with milk and a tea bag floating in it! We laughed and I gently explained what we’d actually meant. Our work was emotional labour as well as intellectual labour. Together we worked with him to develop him into a productive and valuable member of our team.

And this is how all of our children will make the transition into the workplace – through the patience and dedication of people who have gone before them. They come into companies from school or from university and they learn by watching, by trying, by getting immediate feedback. Because we see them, we can engage with them in countless words of support, encouragement and feedback. With most – or even just a significant part – of our teams working remotely, how do we introduce and develop our essential young workers?

Culture happens by osmosis. It happens as we are socialised into a system, watching the ‘elders’ do what they do with great skill. We see the respect certain behaviours elicit, and the sanctions that come when we deviate from what’s expected. The elders in our businesses are the ‘starter’ in the sourdough bread, and when they are working from home, we remove the live ingredients that feed and maintain the culture as new ingredients are added.

The opportunity

The real risk with these two challenges is that issues may come about by accident – the unintended consequences of well-meaning policies in some cases, and the emergent properties of a system undergoing its own organic change in others.

The onset of the pandemic saw a rapid pivot towards remote working. As we come out of it, the focus will be on flexible working – a more nuanced and company-specific way of doing things based on the needs of everyone from employees to customers.

That sounds straightforward, but every decision related to flexible working will have an impact on company culture. If you want to create or retain a great culture, you will have much to do to actively make that happen – and in a new world where everyone is occupied by learning the ‘new normal’.

But, daunting as that might sound, this is the most fertile opportunity for you to go further and go faster in building the most effective, productive and sustainable culture in the organisation you lead – a culture that creates value in the new world, and is primed for a new order of challenges and opportunities. Because, as I’ve said before, culture is not always pliable, and there are only certain times when it can be flexed to any great degree or at any great speed.

Now is one of those times. The truly effective leaders will not miss this opportunity.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they lead in the face of uncertainty and complexity. She works in the related areas of Strategic Foresight, Complex Change and Adaptive Leadership. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.

About Jacqueline Conway