Without an office, what defines a workplace?

Lights out.
Lights out.
Image: REUTERS/Ann Wang
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My first employer was the AC Nielsen Company of Headington, Oxford. As soon as I think of that job, I conjure a mental image of a classic 1950s office building beside a busy roundabout. The company and its location are deeply intertwined in my associations, and that’s true of everywhere I’ve ever worked.

Office buildings have been used since the beginnings of free enterprise to make iconic statements. The Chrysler Building in New York,  the HSBC Building in Hong Kong, CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, Apple Park…the list of architecturally distinguished office buildings is long.

Even at less memorable addresses, our associations with work are typically rooted in a sense of place. People often say, “I work at the Acme Paint Company” rather than “I work for the Acme Paint Company.”

You can usually learn a lot about an organization just by sitting in its reception area for a few minutes. A decade ago, Kursty Groves wrote a stimulating book called I Wish I Worked There, which looks at “how the working environment fosters the flow of ideas from both practical and emotional perspectives—with business results.” It underlines the role of the physical environment in making companies successful and distinctive over the long term, which makes sense given that this environment is often a company’s largest capital expense after its people.

But what if there’s no there, there? This year we’ve been forced, in various parts of the world, to dispense completely with our office environments for long stretches of time. Those important contributors to company identity and success essentially have been abandoned overnight, and may never return on the same scale.

What other factors make companies powerfully distinct?

Companies are brands, too; without some distinctiveness they are simply commodities. But many people recently have found that their company is still very much the same company even when the environment is taken out of the mix. Much of that identity comes from the people, of course, usually the largest capital expense. But people come and go, even the management. The company’s products and services are part of its identity, and they, too, come and go.

A more enduring strand of a company’s identity should come from its vision/mission/purpose. Most companies have at least one of these, some all three. In theory they should be long-lasting, distinct guides which help to capture what a company is all about. But can you remember yours? (Can your CEO remember it?) Does it resonate with you and capture your imagination?

Often, the answer to some of these questions is no. It’s not entirely surprising, as a lot is being asked of two or three publicly-facing sentences. What really matters about the mission or vision is whether there are any distinctive behaviors that connect to it, and those are often given less attention.

The power of everyday behaviors

I would contend that a company with a strong identity demonstrates small, distinctive behaviors that run through its daily existence. They may not be written down (in fact they’re often more powerful when they aren’t) but they are known and shared. They need to be consistent with what the company does, with its stated mission, and with what the people who work there believe. They need to be endorsed by the CEO, or they wither. They’re specific, not universal. After all, the principles and behaviors that work for one company aren’t necessarily right for another.

Early in my career I worked for a manufacturing company that believed hugely in the value of speed. It took me a while to get used to the idea that meetings weren’t just to discuss a topic, but were actually decision-making bodies. Major decisions such as price changes seemed to be implemented almost as soon as the meeting was over. The effect of this rapid and devolved decision-making was that people came to the meetings very well prepared, with all the facts and data that might inform the decision. Speed was both a belief and a behavior.

A few years later I worked for a creative company which also had many unwritten principles running through the business. One of them was “always listen to the dissenting voice.” If someone had a different point of view from the consensus, they were listened to avidly, regardless of their seniority or background. This didn’t make the company work faster—in fact the principle often resulted in meetings that were long, heated, and exhausting. But when they eventually ended, that dissenting point of view had often formed the germ of a really good idea.

In both examples, powerful ingrained behaviors helped to make these companies what they were. Behaviors like that are valuable assets, and they’re not, on the face of it, location-dependent. The irony is that they work best not when they’re sent out from on high, but when they’re part of the company’s cultural fabric, disseminated through informal chats, over beers, or between cups of coffee. Without an office, those things don’t happen quite so much—so companies need to be deliberate now and create these opportunities virtually when they can.

We don’t yet know what the full effect will be as more companies go remote. But when the workplace is suddenly no longer a place at all, there is bound to be an impact.