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Saturday 9 March 2019

ThinkIn: It’s a corporate life

Silicon Valley is setting the culture for workplaces everywhere. More informality – and more process, too

By Liz Moseley

It’s a Corporate Life Readout

At this week’s ThinkIn, the first in our It’s a Corporate Life series, we began with a statement and a question: corporate culture is sick. What would it take to fix it?

A significant minority of members felt that corporate culture is improving. But it is clear that dissatisfaction, loneliness and mistrust are real issues faced by too many of us. What is to be done? And who’s on the hook for doing it?

This matters because…

We spend more waking hours at work than we do with friends and family (although increasingly our work relationships are becoming, at their best, more familial). It matters because when things go wrong at work they can go seriously wrong. Reported incidence of mental health issues is on the rise: according to the mental health charity Mind, one in four of us will experience some form of mental health problems each year, and if it is to happen, it is most likely to occur during the middle period of our lives when we are in work.


Sarah Kline, Deputy CEO, United for Global Mental Health (0:34)

When you’re looking at the burden of the disease –so, when people experience mental ill health – the bulk is actually through their twenties, thirties and forties: your working life. There are different reasons as to why people become ill over the course of their lifetime. If you’re a good employer, you should be aware and anticipate some of these problems.

Why are people struggling?

The dream of flexible working is, well, just that. Especially for those just starting out, a culture of presenteeism, wrought by competitive anxiety, is depressingly real.

Prahalad Prasad, works for a big bank in the City of London (0:23)

You’re not judged on your actual work which you should be, you’re judged on how long you spend at the office, how many coffees you’ve had with someone, whether you skip your lunch break.

Working from home, frustrated by the misery of conference-calling software, is making us lonelier. A two-year study from Stanford University showed that, given the option, people would rather work together than apart.

Sophie Corlett, Director of External Relations, Mind (0:24)

Remote working is very lonely… Actually a lot of people feel lonely in the office because they feel different, excluded, bullied because they’re new and nobody has introduced themselves to them because of imposter syndrome and they feel that everybody else is better than them.

The blurring of boundaries between our working and non-working lives – enabled by tech, through remote working and always-on communications – has become symptomatic of a creeping dehumanisation of our professional relationships. Why depend on an “on-boarding process” for welcoming new people? Can’t people be depended on to welcome other people naturally? However well-intentioned, when culture is crystallised in this way it stops being authentic. It loses its potency.

One member shared this story, but wished to be anonymous

A new CEO joined. Suddenly it was all about big data/onboarding/circling back/future facing/agents of change/blah blah. He’d come to civilise us. To make us more commercial and more global. He felt the culture was cliquey. And he was right. But in destroying that clique, he changed the character of the organisation. Still highly successful, more so even. Still inventive. Probably more attractive to more people. But just not the same.

Cognitively and emotionally there’s a dissonance between the informality that even large organisations have adopted and our need for systems and structures that help us to feel secure. We’re wary of the lure of new technology. Fancy platforms (and flat hierarchy working cultures) promise much but don’t travel well outside Silicon Valley. The cult of “change management” is fraught with oversell. It’s exhausting, distracting and rarely makes a difference.

Matt Ballantine, Collaboration and Change Consultant (0:15)

[There are] cultural assumptions that go into a lot of the technology that we use at work that are born of Silicon Valley tech companies, that if you’re not a  tech company then you’ll really have some struggles implementing.

Storytelling fuels culture. Yet a certain model of CEO, spouting interest in and commitment to à la mode terminology – “diversity and inclusion”, “wellbeing” – has become symbolic of a corporate culture in which we are judged not by the work we do, but by how we are seen to be doing it, and who we are seen to be doing it with. If the CEO’s story doesn’t ring true, it puts everyone under pressure to seem to be something that they’re not. In a service economy especially, where the value of day-to-day output is less tangible, trying to operate in a company that says it’s one thing but is really something else, accelerates the kind of insidious meaninglessness that will rot a culture from the inside out.

Barry Jennings, works for a large global bank (0:17)

The fact that the story is being told [in the organisation] is incredibly important. If those stories aren’t being told at the top of the business that gap gets filled by stories being told at the bottom of the business.

A ThinkIn attendee who works in the media (0:19)

One of the problems with modern corporate companies, especially the ones with CEOs who operate sort of like a walking TED talk, is the obsession of creating a culture, a personality and an identity. What they end up doing is robbing individuals of their identity.

What’s to be done?

The presenting symptoms of a bad corporate culture are many and varied – high staff turnover, secrecy and mistrust, poor productivity – but the solutions may be few and simple. It requires us all, especially those in leadership positions, to hold a mirror up to ourselves and see our behaviour for what it is, and hear our words for what they really are. It is uncomfortable, it requires humility and courage – but it is essential.

Phil Lewis, Managing Director of Corporate Punk (0:24)

People have mortgages to pay, they’ve got children to raise, they’ve got friends to see, pubs to drink in, they’ve got football to watch, gigs to go to and work is not going to be the most important thing in a lot of people’s lives. Unless we can start to have honest conversations around that and start to really think about what the implications are, we just create more misery.

All corporations (however modern, however “cool”) have a boss and it is right to expect more from them. It is down to the bosses to create an environment in which it is OK to say if you’re not OK, to set standards for honesty and courtesy. To be clear about what (or who) the organisation they are leading is really set up to serve – and to reflect this truthfully in the culture – from incentive schemes, to policies, to shared language.