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Returning from a year of mostly remote work, for many organizations, means returning to a new work culture. One with new expectations, new opportunities, and new challenges, and one we can meet with purposeful reinvention to restore and reset.

New independence and expectations

People working remotely during the pandemic created new routines, used new tools, and proved—if they were successful—that location wasn’t a defining factor for productivity. In fact, they may have found greater productivity (and/or greater imbalance) when they started to live at work—at their kitchen tables, in their basements, in their bedrooms, and anywhere they could. We can’t underestimate the new expectations for flexibility.

There is perhaps no greater example of this expectation than in a recent open letter from Apple employees, about to move into a stunning new campus, to their CEO:

“Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit. Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple.”

Apple may be one of the richest companies in the world, but every organization can learn from this example. There is a need for a new social contract and flexibility balance between employer and employee.

Seeking new meaning

We can’t look at the pandemic in isolation from the social movements that accelerated during the past 18 months. Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and the many inequities that surfaced when economies stopped (gender, race, income) started profound conversations that we are just starting to understand. We know that employees, partners, and customers expect a brand to be more than its balance sheet. It must make a positive and meaningful impact. It must often take a stand on social issues, and create workplaces where people can feel safe to be themselves and do their best work.

Basecamp’s interesting choice to write a public letter to all employees in April 2021 might fuel business school case studies for years to come. It demanded “No more societal and political discussions at the company” and declared:

We are not a social impact company...We don't have to solve deep social problems, chime in publicly whenever the world requests our opinion on the major issues of the day, or get behind one movement or another with time or treasure. These are all important topics, but they're not our topics at work—they're not what we collectively do here. Employees are free to take up whatever cause they want, support whatever movements they'd like, and speak out on whatever horrible injustices are being perpetrated on this group or that (and, unfortunately, there are far too many to choose from). But that's their business, not ours.

The result is still being written, but the effect was immediate: within a month over 34% of employees resigned and coverage is marked by words like “meltdown” and “implode”. Every company, in its own way, is a social impact company.

Apple and Basecamp, though they may seem like remote examples, are learning moments. Organizations must be clear-eyed about striking a new balance between the bottom line, social impact, and the personal meaning and growth of people who choose to work there.

A purposeful reinvention

We are looking at a new relationship between businesses and their employees, and perhaps the NY Times was right when it published “for the first time in a generation, workers are gaining the upper hand.”

This means organizations must have a deliberate focus on culture, training, constant recruitment, retention, and values. It must seek alignment, and though by definition companies are autocratic, they must work harder than ever to motivate people as a collective in pursuit of impact. These actions must be authentic, and be anchored in consistent internal communications and the company’s outward brand strategy.

Yet we shouldn’t forget for an instant that frontline workers, essential workers, and those who lost employment during the pandemic certainly might not feel this “upper hand”. They endured the greatest challenges. My grandfather, a fisherman in the North Atlantic, never gave a thought to vision and purpose. Historian Studs Terkell is decades gone, but he wrote memorably in his book “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do”:

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.

I know I write from a privileged place. I can work from a desk in my living room with high-speed Internet, kids in online school, and a laptop is the primary tool of my trade. I don’t suffer daily humiliations and have never felt abused by an employer. This, we must all recognize, is far from the experience of most.

But no matter the context, the sector, or the industry, we are moving into a time when the best and most successful companies will undertake a purposeful reinvention of themselves—bolstering the good, jettisoning the bad, and embracing the new. Asking the right questions is a good start:

  • What will my hybrid work culture look like? Do people understand it? Have we engaged with employees to understand their expectations?
  • Does our current work culture align with our business strategy in the coming 6-12 months? Do we have alignment?
  • Is diversity and inclusion and our impact on society a true priority for us? Are we acting on this priority?

Answering questions like these will underpin establishing great work cultures within our broader changed society. Recruiting, retention, innovation, and the ability to drive a business forward depend on getting this right.

We aren’t going back to the same workplaces of 2019. What it means to work and grow within a company—to choose where you will give your energy and time, and where you choose to learn and have your own impact—is a dynamic, new, and exciting conversation as we enter a post-vaccine work world. I’m inspired to see where we go.