At the end of last month one of the most senior businesspeople in the UK gave voice to what many bosses had been mumbling for a while:
If ‘you ask most bosses, everybody secretly wants everyone to come back into the office,’ said Tony Danker, Director-General of the CBI.
We’d seen similar sentiment in the months before, Snapchat and Disney were just two examples of companies who got attention for their public announcement of an office diaspora. Four days was the new five days but the message was clear that the ‘office is back’.
I spoke to someone this week whose company had been at the receiving end of a return to work summons. ‘It’s annoying but everyone has quite enjoyed being around each other,’ he told me after relating miserable sounding stories of chaotic childcare dramas and personal upheavals.
That’s the conflicted nature of these things. The best organisations are recognising that quality time in each other’s company is vital, but that knee-jerking back to four or five days a week is a mistake.
We should be in no doubt that spending time together is the quickest and most reliable way to build bonds. (But also that it doesn’t always work seamlessly).
What is true is that isolation breeds a desire for isolation. I joined one company for a session last week where a member of the team voiced something that I’ve heard a lot in the last couple of years:
‘I’ve got enough friends, I don’t need my colleagues to be my friends,’ one marketer said to me.
And while that is completely reasonable there is something about being around others for the daily frictions and interactions of human life that seems to help us connect with those people.
And also connect us with the world and all of its flaws. Being around other humans seems to make us like them more, in this blogpost photographer John Weiss talks about how he ‘fell in love with strangers’ merely by talking to them.
These themes aren’t new, Hannah Arendt felt that loneliness tended to lead to a diminishing sense of trust in others, fomenting uncharitable thoughts to our fellow humans. And in extreme instances being the root cause of extremist misanthropic views. Loneliness breeds loneliness. Company breeds trust.
On the subject of loneliness, work is becoming more lonely. New data tells us that one in five workers aged 18 to 29 say they are lonely at work. Whether remote loneliness is one of the causes of disconnection from work isn’t yet clear, but new research from Mercer suggests that fully remote employees are more likely to want to quit their job than the average worker (47% vs 40%).
Strong team cohesion is a vital component of good culture. We've always known that high performing teams tend to socialise with each other, and that strong results can often be the output of that cohesion.
Here’s one illustration of that point using teachers, Teacher Tapp found that teachers in ‘outstanding’ Ofsted-rated schools were more likely to go to the pub together.
In more recent data Teacher Tapp found that this effect was most characteristic of London schools but less so elsewhere - perhaps reflecting the use of public transport in the capital and cars outside of London?
Don’t mistake the pub as the essential ingredient here.
The essential part is team cohesion. I want to strongly remind you that these days this really doesn't need to be the pub (I once did a podcast about a workplace that had created 'Crisp Thursday' every Thursday at 4pm).
And it’s become increasing clear that these social interactions should happen during work time, not be exclusively for those who are free to hang around after work. But all of it helps remind us that building personal connections is the backdrop of good culture.
(Thank you to Adrian Bethune putting me on to the teacher data).
Read more: ‘The secret to happiness is human connection, not economic growth’
Read more: you can’t build culture when people are too busy to build connections with each other
Tech firms’ growing culture envy
There’s been a run of articles over the last few weeks hinting at how the spate of job cuts at technology companies was being accompanied by a desire to rekindle their ‘scrappy’ start-up cultures of the past.
Read: Sundar Pichai: ‘I remember when Google was small and scrappy‘
Read: Your favourite tech giant wants you to know it’s a startup again
The message is clear: success has spawned slow-moving inert cultures that are holding these companies back.
It’s not hard to look at the embarrassing missteps of Google as they lumber around the challenge of AI to witness that this is an organisation that has lost its direction, the culture that was meant to make them fast moving and fun is in their past.
(Read: Tech layoffs strip the facade off TikTok's 'day in the life' videos)
I spoke to a senior executive at Google this week who confessed his doubts, ‘I wonder if innovation is possible in a company as large as ours?’ Adding how ‘risk averse’ the place had become.
This was the foundational disagreement with the status quo that led to the culture at Netflix. The firm’s founders recognised that the expanding size of an organisation inevitably led to an increase in bureaucracy. The business set out to actively challenge that with the culture it created. What the likes of Google are likely to discover is that changing culture is a monumental task that will take years.
Showing how to turn culture around might be another way that Microsoft could yet school its competitors.
Listen: How Satya Nadella changed Microsoft’s Culture
Listen: Inside the culture of Netflix
After a short break Eat Sleep Work Repeat is coming back in the next few weeks. I’m keen to hear from you:
If your organisation has tried something risky to reboot team movitation
if your culture is shaped by a ritual (or several of them)
if you changed something because work wasn’t feeling the same
Reply to this email to reach me. I’ll read all the replies.
How the idea of a ‘work husband’ or ‘work wife’ might be an attempt to justify that societally awkward phenomenon of a friend of the opposite sex
A vague article suggesting that ‘some British firms’ are paying employees a premium to come to the office five days a week
Job role of the future - AI prompt generator. Anyone who has used AI tools will know that often your own efforts don’t seem to match the dazzling achievements of other people. Promptbase is a marketplace for AI prompts that allows you to learn from their successes - worth checking out. Getting more from AI is going to be a differentiator in your job, believe me
US offices hit 50% occupancy last month
Edward Slingersland's book 'Drunk' makes a good case that the pub actually is the key factor. Drinking together lowers the inhibitions that can make working at close quarters so tension inducing. Humans have been drinking together for an awfully long time, after all. It would be odd to carry on if it didn't bring any advantages