A senior executive I spoke to this week expressed his fear that the new Work From Home phenomenon is threatening the very future of his business. He is not alone. I’ve heard the same fears about WFH and culture from numerous business leaders recently. But it needn’t be so.

In the past year his business has demonstrated considerable success, on the back of which they have projected further accelerated growth. However, they are starting to encounter a newly emerging phenomenon that could well scupper the expansion plans of many, successful, businesses.

The culture of this executives business has been the primary reason for their success to date. It’s truly great. People love to work there. They respect each other and the roles they each play. They work well together they share the brand’s values and beliefs and are aligned behind it’s objective, so they innovate and go the extra mile when necessary.

However, to maintain their current trajectory they need to add to their headcount and so far, they are struggling. It’s not that they are short of applicants for roles. People are applying from all over the UK and even abroad and that’s not surprising. They are gaining recognition as “one to watch” within their sector and people always want to be on a winning team. The problem is that nearly all their applicants want to work from home, so they have been counting them out.

However you view this apparent conflict between WFH and culture, it’s going to impact on the growth of any business. In this case they are obviously restricting their pool of applicants. Giving themselves less choice. They are also jeopardising the potential of the business. Interestingly, the higher their calibre the more adamant applicants are that they want to work from home. Consequently the business is compromising it’s future by limiting recruitment to less-able candidates.

The executive told me “Our success is founded on our culture and that is a product of how we work together. We need to see each other, have conversations and rub shoulders on a daily basis to create the magic that makes us successful”. It seems WFH and culture don’t make good bedfellows.

I’m sympathetic. This is probably the case for the majority of organisations. Nevertheless, the reality is people don’t want to go to an office anymore and you can’t ignore that. Success in business has always required us to work with what we have. Wishing for something else just doesn’t cut it. It’s what transformation objectors have done and we all know what’s happened to them!

One of the things that struck me the most about my time at the original Saatchi & Saatchi, was that whatever office I wandered into, anywhere in the world the employees, to a man or woman, absolutely loved working for the agency. They were hungry to be a part, they replicated our Charlotte Street environment and reflected our values and beliefs. It may possibly be the thing that most shaped my views on brands and the power of community. We consistently did things that made our competitors’ jaws drop, but this was only possible because of the brand community we had created. And we had achieved this in the pre-internet era and despite the fact that our offices were scattered across the globe.

I also recently undertook a very successful transformation of a financial services business that relied on financial advisers who were independent and located across the UK. Despite this we built a brand that engendered a sense of belonging and achieved consistency across a diverse organisation that is essential to success in any sector.

It may be nice to have everyone in your organisation within arms reach in an office, but it’s no longer realistic. You simply have to get over that and work out how to bring WFH and culture together in a different way.

It’s not impossible, but it does require you to abandon a few conventions in the fast-moving digital age that’s never a bad thing..

Replicate your working environment on-line

Collaboration platforms have come a long way. There is nothing to stop you creating an on-line environment similar, at least, to that which you would have in an office. Open chat and audio links give employees the opportunity for the usual office banter, you can fire questions at your colleagues and manage complex processes.

Encourage social as well as business interaction

My Brand-Led Business transformation programme drives transformation and ultimately any business, in part, by means of an intranet with three areas. One of these areas is social. This is an important aspect of any brand. So much so that I encourage my clients to create a social management role to manage this aspect of their brand. This role is part of the new thinking I mentioned businesses have to adopt in the digital era.

There are off-the-shelf platforms that can be adapted to suit any business. They give users the option to create break-out rooms for impromptu meetings or get-togethers with select groups of colleagues. These can be chat, audio or video. How you build an Intranet like this is part of the individuality of your brand, so I can’t advise you here, but think about those water-fountain encounters and bring your creativity to bear to try to replicate them on-line.

Don’t forget traditional events

However, it’s not just about tech. You can create events that encourage employees to come to the office or a neutral venue. If they still won’t budge though, you just have to go to them. Yes, I mean physically. This may be new thinking for a lot of businesses, but familiar to any business that has ever leveraged home workers. And such businesses have been around since the industrial revolution.

In the digital age marrying WFH and culture or brand development requires a style of management that’s sits uneasily with traditional executives. Maybe you’ll need some help or mentoring to adjust. If you don’t adapt though, you will struggle to succeed.

Some years ago, I created a road-show for a chain-store retail client. Senior executives would turn up at stores and do a presentation, hold forums and distribute goodies. This kept executives in touch with the shop floor and built relationships between them and customer facing employees. This drove changes in buying policy, store design and operational procedures.

In a couple of cases I have set up team knowledge quizzes where individual stores in a retail chain could pitch their selected teams against each other in a national product knowledge quiz. The early rounds were on-line, but the series culminated in live finals. These were held in the capital city and teams and their supporters were transported there to participate. It presented loads of opportunity for improving customer service, enhancing the brand experience and strengthening bonds between employees and with the company. Everything was also filmed and made available on-demand to those who couldn’t make the live or streamed event. We created awards for individuals and teams and of course a big prize for the store whose team won in the final.

Be consistent

What we are talking about here is brand building of course and, as I keep telling my clients, one of the key principles of that dark art is consistency. That means consistency, not only between what you do and what you say, but between the individual elements of your campaign. So, ensure that the initiatives you launch, the environment you create, the platforms you build and the way you encourage their use is all consistent with your brand model, your brand purpose, promise and the objective you have set the business.

I realise it’s tough for businesses whose brand management has always been traditional. Sometimes it’s hard to adapt to the demands of the digital, WFH age. However, I can assure you there are many businesses that have found a way to maintain and often strengthen their brand community, bringing together WFH and culture, using initiatives like these. All it takes is a pragmatic approach.

Like everything else in business it’s a matter of being clear where you are trying to get to and then utilising the vast array of resources, new and old, in a way that will enable you to make that journey. 

Business transformation is far more about the change in mindset required to do this than it is digital technology. Digital merely describes the nature of some of the newer tools we have at our disposal, but, such is the pace of change in the new paradigm even these are now being superseded by newer technologies like nano and biomorphic or quantum computing. These should only also be components of broader plans working alongside traditional tools and channels in agnostic, integrated solutions.

Your brand represents, but also relies on, business transformation. You need your brand community to be firing on all cylinders to successfully transform and thereby compete in the digital age, but it takes a digitally-driven philosophy to build your community..

Brands that have been successful to date often won’t survive in the digital paradigm. Above everything else, the digital era is one where what works one day will rarely be up to the job the next. Constant innovation is crucial and it makes sense to begin that.

Jeff Bezos tells us “the only sustainable advantage an organisation has is change” and there’s no better place to start than in the approach you take to your brand community.

Phil Darby
September 7, 2022

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