How remote staff will build a new corporate culture

“If you love it, you love it,” is how Carlos Brito, Managing Director of AB InBev since 2005, describes the strong internal culture of the global brewer. The ethos of hard conduct in the company comes from above. “Everyone thinks he could be Brito,” a former student of the group management training program once told me.

AB InBev’s ambitious interns may soon have to adjust their goal. A process of replacing their leader – possibly by a foreigner – is underway. These changes come as the coronavirus puts extraordinary new pressure on corporate cultures around the world.

Since the pandemic began to lock down economies and shut down workplaces, the strong bonds between colleagues have supported the teams. If you recognize everyone during the video call in in-person meetings that you had before, it is easier to establish a virtual relationship.

But the hybrid future of work will challenge organizations to find different ways to welcome and introduce newcomers, possibly including Mr. Brito’s successor. It will become more difficult to align even long-term staff with the company’s mission, the more time they will spend away from the workplace.

Anthropologist James Suzman, author of a short story labor history, told me during a fascinating discussion at the recent FT Weekend Festival, which over the decades the office has become “what the village was in the days of agriculture”. But the lockdown began to “cut off the social function of the office [and] it has ceased to be a binding force ”.

As social animals, however, humans have an infinite capacity for adaptation. This is already evident in efforts to shape or showcase corporate culture online.

McKinsey staff, drawing on a centuries-old tradition of company song, put on a surprisingly moving event (for me, at least) online rendering of “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper. Telecommuting engineers at Stripe, the payment software company, brainstorming solutions to a simulated lunar crash as a liaison exercise.

As a wave of new recruits arrive on day one at the online office, human resources departments bombard them with welcome videos from senior executives and invitations to virtually “buddy” with coworkers. According to a recent article in Personal Today, one company even sends breakfast to newcomers on day one.

What is true for offline corporate culture initiatives is also true online. If you are not part of the “cult culture” that management thinkers Jim Collins and Jerry Porras once identified as typical of organizations that were “built to last“You’ll be cynical about songs and band ties. If you’re in tune with the culture, your enthusiasm can grow – to Mr. Brito’s point” if you like him, you like him. ”

Culture was once rotten or misguided on the fringes of large organizations. The paramilitary “regional cadres” of the East India Company in 18th century India often pursued their own strategies, for better or for worse, without London headquarters finding out for weeks.

But now it’s hard for any member of a web team to be truly distant. It gives companies another way to guide the culture. But remote working has also loosened the physical bonds between employee and employer, and allowed staff to make new connections or rekindle weak bonds.

People now have “the time and the inclination to go beyond their established relationships,” says Laura Empson, author of Leading Professionals, on how to run professional service companies, even though, like a shaken kaleidoscope, “we don’t yet know what shape the fragments will take.”

She was moved when her academic peers spontaneously shared their collective wisdom about teaching online, to help her and other management professors cope with the sudden removal from the classroom when Covid-19 took hold. struck in March. This surge of collegiality happily contradicted the commercial logic of competition between universities, it Recount the recent British Academy of Management Conference.

With offices closed, “people have started to find a community again in completely different ways,” says Suzman.

Organizations that have historically been able to shape the way their employees work and behave – McKinsey, AB InBev and others – will likely find that the shift to hybrid work helps them strengthen their strong cultures. The corollary is that companies with weak cultures, which so far have only “weathered” the crisis, as Professor Empson put it, could collapse.

And all businesses are likely to find that it will often be the staff who set the standards for the new work culture, rather than the CEO.

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Twitter: @andrewtghill

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