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A change in leadership can alter work culture
Support for a flexible and inclusive work environment has to come from the top.
The world hasn’t stopped talking about Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and likely won’t for quite some time. The story unfolded rapidly and is a bit bizarre, with no one knowing Musk’s true motives.
But the news from inside Twitter is that employees don’t quite know what to think. During an internal meeting, top Twitter lawyer Vijaya Gadde “acknowledged that there are significant uncertainties about what the company will look like under Musk’s leadership,” according to Politico.
Employees are right to be concerned. Twitter is known for having a laid-back culture, with a rating of 4.4/5 for work-life balance on the employee review site Blind. Musk, on the other hand, is known for screaming, swearing, and randomly firing employees that he doesn’t like.
Can one person singlehandedly upend a company’s culture?
Management drives work culture
It’s not a big leap to imagine that, yes, a figure like Musk could upend the culture that Twitter has worked to build. Google searches for terms like “how leadership impacts culture” return a plethora of articles — most of them directed at leaders — that emphasize just how much influence executives and managers have.
Larger organizations may have thought that their connections to senior leadership were diluted. After all, mid-level managers and teams can often function as insular units. But the pandemic and, more specifically, return-to-office policies have shown just how much the company reflects its senior leadership’s overall vision.
Demands for in-office presence are not new. Back in July of 2012, Marissa Mayer became Yahoo’s president and CEO. By 2013, she had called all remote employees back into the office, saying “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” At the time, the decision was met with a very mixed reaction — but still in a time when working from home was not the norm.
Many companies now are drawing lines in the sand, with some standing firmly with the (outdated, unproven) mentality that the best work has to be done in the office. Despite mountains of studies that show that productivity increases when employees work from home and despite mountains of surveys from employees that show increased job satisfaction. Decisions come from the top.
A survey of knowledge workers conducted by Future Forum, a research group backed by Slack, found that executives are twice as likely to want to go back to the office full time. And why shouldn’t they? Their in-office experience is nothing like that of the average worker. They are returning to cushy offices, a desire for impromptu meetings, and their own brand of flexibility — coming and going as they please. CNBC found that in some companies, employees are complying with the return-to-office mandates, while executives still enjoy the freedom of working from home.
But for everyone else? Butts in chairs.
True support for remote work needs complete buy-in
Then there are the companies that sit in the middle with hybrid models. It seems like a compromise between leadership’s desire to bring people together and employees’ desire for flexibility.
But because work culture is so driven by leadership, hybrid models are likely to fail in most instances. If the “compromise” is an attempt to placate workers and not the result of true belief in remote work, then it’s only a matter of time. In a Bloomberg article, one unnamed executive said, “We’ll get everyone back into the office eventually. I just don’t want to pick that fight right now.”
Managers will favor the employees that come into the office, creating a hierarchy of employees (adding to the hierarchy that women and people of color have experienced for a long time). Performance reviews and promotions will reflect this. Eventually, the employees that desire true flexibility will leave, resulting in a workforce that matches the leadership’s desire for in-office presence. The company will continue to reflect the overall vision that the executives have… though they’ll likely lose the talent war.
When my employer became fully remote in 2010, it was the result of an initiative from the COO. She saw it as a way to re-invigorate a team that she thought had stagnated. But also, she saw it as a benefit for herself. The remote work policy was intended to embrace ultimate flexibility: unlimited time off, no need to report on whereabouts during the day. As long as the job got done, time didn’t matter. I’d been working remotely for four years prior to that, but still followed a rigid 8:00 to 5:00 schedule. This new vision of remote work changed that.
She convinced the CEO that her plan was a good one. And in many respects, it was. My own remote work experience changed dramatically. I could step away without any guilt when I had a sick kid or a headache or just didn’t feel like working on any particular day.
But the vision and execution for fully-autonomous and flexible remote work were not the same thing. The CEO opted to work mostly traditional work hours. And if he sent an email, he expected a response immediately. Didn’t matter that it went against internal remote work policies, which were very clear that the expected response time was 24 hours, in order to give people the freedom to work how they choose. When the notifications came to my phone, I would immediately panic that I wasn’t sitting at my desk at the moment that the CEO decided that he needed something. He never said anything if my response was delayed, but side comments in meetings made his displeasure known.
There was also one team that opted to work in a mostly synchronous fashion, even though the policy allowed for asynchronous work. One analyst that often worked in the evening — to accommodate her children’s extracurriculars — was criticized for “slowing things down.” And later, a developer who opted to do the same was seen as second-tier to his colleagues, falling out of favor compared to those that were available during traditional work hours.
Whatever the remote work policy — whether synchronous or asynchronous, hybrid, or otherwise — it has to be led by example and applied uniformly to all employees. Otherwise, as I saw, it can still create a hierarchy of employees who choose to conform to the leadership’s style of working.
Immoveable leadership contributed to The Great Resignation
Musk, return-to-office policies, leading by example all beg the question: who “owns” the company? Is it the person who legally and financially owns the company?
For generations, knowledge workers have accepted the top-down leadership structure. However, The Great Resignation has shown that power does not only belong to the people with the fancy titles and fancy offices.
Inflexibility has been the hallmark of The Great Resignation, including in my own household: when my husband (a software engineer) was told to return to the office, his response was “nope.” And he found another job easily. As soon as he turned in his notice, his current employer immediately changed its tune and told him that he could work from home, but the trust was gone by that point. He likely would have found himself labeled as a second-tier employee or eventually found himself guilted into returning to the office with his team: “Can you come in for just this one meeting?”
But in many respects, return-to-office policies were symptomatic of much larger issues, including how much respect the company has for its employees. It’s the difference between “this company is mine” and “this company is ours.” True leaders recognize that an organization cannot function without the contributions of its employees — and treats them as something more than a commodity that can be replaced.
Just look at Basecamp, a company well-revered in the remote work space, but lost 30% of its employees due to a “no politics at work” policy that it implemented in 2021. Despite swift backlash after the policy was announced, the founders doubled down on their stance. And it led to a mass exodus. The founders later issued a mea culpa… but then had to rebuild, as many senior employees had left.
I predict that Twitter employees will flee once the sale is complete — and that Musk will not care. To him, employees are a commodity and he’ll simply find more. Of course, the implications for a platform as large as Twitter are hard to measure compared to the average company.
And it will be some time before we see the fallout from any return-to-office policies, but The Great “Reshuffle” is far from over. I also suspect that there are some remote work advocates waiting in the wings for a CEO to retire to shake up an organization. The question will be: how much damage is done in the meantime?
In the News: Google bets on in-office work
At the beginning of April, Google employees began a hybrid work arrangement, with employees expected to be in the office three days per week. Offices were reconfigured to accommodate a mix of collaboration between in-office and remote employees.
But it’s hard not to wonder at Google’s true commitment to hybrid, with the company announcing a $9.5 billion investment in real estate in 2022. Part of that investment will be data centers, but the rest will be offices.
A company like Google may always be able to attract employees, due to the resume gold that the company’s name brings. Google is likely banking on that. However, competition for talent is fierce even among FAANG companies, with Meta embracing a “work from anywhere” policy.