Outdated Zeitgeists: Failing to Update Work Culture
Last week I explored the concept of metas / zeitgeists through the Checks VV NFT project. This week I thought a lot about outdated zeitgeists, since zeitgeists give us a sense of what people care about in the present moment.
With all the talk around return to office and more broadly work culture, I thought through the risks of having an outdated culture.
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Culture is one of those words that have entered the mainstream in a big way — especially in the context of organizations, company building and generally at work.
Everyone “knows” work culture is important. When things go wrong, people even blame the culture.
Leaders are constantly talking about the culture of their organizations. The proliferation of cultural values on walls is endless.
Even though culture is hard to define, we can all appreciate a great culture when we see it, and certainly there are a few that inevitably stand out.
Yet if culture is so important, many organizations don’t do a great job of updating their culture to match the times.
Outdated Work Culture
In last week’s essay, we explored the concept of metas / zeitgeists.
As a refresher, metas (trends, fads, vibes, sub-cultures) are effectively zeitgeists: the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.
Metas and zeitgeists highlight the relevance of the current moment and where people are putting their present attention.
A top of mind topic that influences work culture is remote work versus return to office.
More companies are pushing for a return to office strategy. But many employees are on the fence about returning to the office for a variety of reasons — they value the extra time from not commuting, the flexibility to run errands during the day, the cost savings from working from home, etc.
After years of working from home, the zeitgeist for work has shifted from the 9-to-5 in-person office culture to something more flexible and fluid that matches our digital first world.
And maybe some organizations have good reasons to take a full on return to work approach. For those organizations, if your employees are onboard, then that’s fine. But that’s probably far and few between.
Because the zeitgeist has shifted, employees may begrudgingly follow orders and return to the office, but over time, employees might reach a boiling point and just choose an alternative altogether.
Innovators Dilemma: To Update or Not Update
Organizations that fail to account for the zeitgeist in setting and updating their cultures are at risk of disruption.
Traditional organizations and leaders who want to preserve and resist updating their work culture to align with the current zeitgeist do not exist in a vacuum. Inevitably, other organizations (i.e. competitors in the war for talent) will and have already started updating their work cultures to align with the zeitgeist. Those companies that do so, will use it in their pitch to entice and recruit top talent from the market.
On top of all of this, employees and workers have access to much more information today. They can see what a better alternative might look like and can choose an alternative work culture that matches their preferences. Or they might just choose to start their own business all together — with new technology and tools driving down the costs to start, it’s never been easier.
While change is hard, resisting change and preserving something that goes against the current zeitgeist is a recipe for disaster.
Changing Culture: Architect x Beacon
Many companies are stuck… because there is no easy approach for them to update their work culture. Large scale organizations don’t have progress mechanisms or defined rules on how to update their culture effectively.
At heart, there are a few key elements to evolve an organization’s culture.
Being an Architect: How to design the new culture?
Being a Beacon: How to signal and embody the new culture?
On being an Architect:
Good culture is a function of design.
If you want employees to come to the office, incentivize them to do so. Why is it better for them to spend a few hours a day coming into the office?
Or why does it need to be all or nothing? Why can’t it be a hybrid model? Maybe employees can come in on some days or weeks and not others. The extreme end of the spectrum rarely works.
On being a Beacon:
Just because you write a new culture document, doesn’t mean that people will automatically follow the new culture. Leading by example is important because like most people, employees also hate hypocrisy. If you preach “x” by then do “y” … why would employees buy into the culture you are pitching but not practicing?
Outside of how you design and how you lead by example, organizations might benefit from co-creating the culture with the employees. 🤯 Most traditional organizations operate from a top-down structure. While there are downsides to a fully bottoms up structure, having some aspects of a more bottoms up structure might increase buy-in.
In Web3, that bottoms up approach is called Community.
Web3’s Bottoms Up Approach
Listening to the community is one of the things at the heart of Web3 culture.
Most implementations of the modern work culture fail to take into account the preference(s) of their key constituents (“community members”), the employees.
In the employer / employee relationship, the employer makes the rules, the employee follows those rules. In this relationship, the concept of community doesn’t really exist. And for all the dynamics mentioned above, employees might simply just choose to exit versus deal with a bad work culture that is inflexible.
The power dynamics between employer and employees might sway back and forth between bull markets and bear markets, but over a longer time horizon, knowledge workers are finding it easier and easier to explore alternatives. This will get magnified with new tools and platforms like AI and ChatGPT.
Getting With The Times
Of course culture is much more than the topic of “remote work versus return to work”. The train of thought above can and should be applied to the different parts of an organization’s culture design.
Culture is hard.
Humans are complex.
Updating culture is even harder.
But preserving an outdated culture that doesn’t match the current zeitgeist and preferences of your employees puts you at risk of disruption.
And in a world where the war for talent is competitive, Innovators Dilemma will decide who wins and which companies/organizations attract the best talent.
Getting with the times is timeless advice.
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Humans will always continue to evolve..