The transformed nightclub
An NLI employee worked at an advertising agency in Texas. It was in a particularly conservative part of Texas (which really says something), but the physical building was in a slightly more progressive and gentrifying part of a big city. In fact, the building at one point was a gay nightclub. The agency founder bought it, set it up for cool-looking meeting spaces, and moved in with his people. The agency has grown.
Over time, the founder came to believe that physical space was a part of culture – cool architecture, pass-bys, barrels, wine in the kitchen that you could access anytime if you kept productive, etc. . the culture, it was argued, was deeply linked to the physical structure that employees inhabited. This agency was even mentioned in a the Wall Street newspaper article once.
When the pandemic struck and the founder’s 55 employees had to rush to their various homes and apartments, he was particularly worried about the impact on culture. Of course, there could be Happy Hours Zoom and the like, but it wouldn’t be the same. Relationships would suffer, innovation would suffer, ideation would suffer. Physical space was the glue. Right?
It turns out that, like many leaders and founders, he was wrong in this hypothesis. Instead, the culture has improved in many ways. Five employees created a YouTube discussion about movies and TV shows, which in fact became a lead generation tool for the agency. Employees felt more autonomy at home; the founder and his management team held video-free Fridays and banned internal video calls (if customers needed them, another story) from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. local. It allowed people to sit with their families, walk outside, run errands, etc.
The old gay nightclub reimagined as an architectural wonder awakened by Texan gentrification was empty, but the culture was flourishing.
What is culture?
NLI has a specific definition of culture, which is “Shared his daily habits.” The way leaders listen to (or don’t listen to) their people. The way meetings are organized, where people feel they can or cannot express themselves. The speed at which good ideas can flow through an organization. Physical space can be a nod to culture – nap pods, on-site dry cleaners, and tiki bar-themed conference rooms all say something about what you expect from employees – but this is not culture.
One of the main COVID paradoxes for many was this idea that a digital culture, driven by the tech stack and video, can in some ways be After inclusive, and more culturally beneficial, than our standard culture Monday through Friday 9am to 7am in cubicles and offices. More people can be included in the right meetings, no matter where they are. And the voices of more people can be heard when you use the chat function well, so that the best ideas get to the top of a meeting, not the most common person’s ideas. confident to speak.
Many companies have also reported creating a much more uniform culture during COVID, where people on the east and west coasts, for example, worked together more closely than before and began to work with similar habits when they interacted. This is a positive step for both inclusiveness and culture in general.
What’s going on with the brain here?
How does all this happen if people aren’t sitting across from each other? Well, the closer you look at someone’s face, the more you register their emotional reaction to events, and you start to read what is good and bad. Research also shows that we learn the habits that make up “culture” most of the time unconsciously, and we learn them through observation and mimicry.
A few irrelevant calculations here: If you measure the number of hours per week that people spent looking closely at the faces of their colleagues, it could have been 3 hours per day x 4 people x 5 days = 60 people hours per week .
Now, in a world full of consecutive video calls, that’s 8 hours per day x 10 people x 5 days = 400 people hours per week. In short, in a working from home world, we observe the reactions of others up to 5-7 times more per week than before. So the culture remains stable and, on the contrary, it is shared more quickly.
At the same time, all this attention to the faces of others is one of the reasons for ‘zoomxaustion’ (Zoom fatigue) that people feel. The brain is strained by looking closely at more people than ever before, as well as realizing that dozens of others are watching us closely all day.
But anything that focuses on facial cues creates some non-obvious benefits for the crop. Not only is culture not the building, but in a world where people spend a lot of time meeting each other on digital platforms, culture is more inclusive, more robust, and more globally consistent.
Next steps and concerns about hybrid work
The real question now is, what will businesses do when we start moving back into construction?
I think the top performing companies will keep the benefits of this period of working from home and ensure that people continue to be on platforms, on their own laptops, unless everyone is in one. piece together. Going back to the days of a few people in a room and others on a phone line not only will not be positive for the culture, but it will be a drag on the culture. When we can’t see or hear others clearly, we all feel a little anxious, people outside the room feel ignored, people who can have a drink together create their own micro-cultures.
A simple rule to consider? If you want to get the most out of your culture, apply the “One virtual, all virtual” rule. In other words, if a person is working from home, you should all be individually on one platform, not expecting that person – let alone the culture – to suffer.
Culture has never been the building, and the more we remember, the better off we’ll all be. Whether we’re in Texas, Mumbai, London or more, all of the above.