Workplace

Change all the things: How tech companies are using this moment to transform

It’s a great time to reinvent company culture. Here’s what that might look like, according to the IDEO partner who helps businesses design that transformation.

IDEO's Bryan Walker

Bryan Walker, a partner at IDEO who runs the firm’s Design for Change studio, works with business leaders looking to transform their organizations, often over multiple years.

Photo: IDEO

Company culture is in a state of flux, and Bryan Walker lives in the eye of the storm. Walker, a partner at IDEO who runs the firm’s Design for Change studio, works with business leaders looking to transform their organizations, often over multiple years.

Right now, that transformation generally falls into specific categories, he said: human centricity; new growth; digital transformation; diversity, equity and inclusion; adapting to climate change and the future of work.

“The leading organizations are certainly looking at this moment as an evolutionary moment,” Walker said. “It’s a moment where you get to question a lot of things, and you get to potentially change a lot of things.”

On a call this week, Walker caught me up on a few major trends he’s been watching as his clients wrestle with how to adapt their company cultures to the post-lockdown era.

Where to invest in inclusivity

Remote work hinders the casual social ties that are more likely to form at the office. That leaves an even bigger role for managers, Walker said.

“Particularly in remote contexts [and] organizations, one’s experience of work is so closely tied to just their experience of their team,” Walker said. “Exposure beyond that is actually much more limited when you’re in a remote context.”

Because of this, Walker has seen a number of organizations double down on investment in managers’ leadership skills.

“With fundamental leadership skills, it’s always been: How do you create safe and inclusive environments where your team can show up as their full selves and perform at the fullest?” Walker said. “I think that’s one interesting reminder around the importance of the manager through all of this, and investment in that.”

Make work feel regenerative

Regenerative agricultural practices allow crops to leave more nutrients in the soil than they extract. Forward-thinking companies are starting to think the same way about work, moving away from relationships with workers that are primarily extractive, Walker said.

The goal is to build an organization where employees feel that — like the soil — they’re receiving more than is being extracted from them.

“That takes you down into really philosophical questions around: Is it about life fulfillment?” Walker said. “How is it that somebody who works at our organization has a more fulfilled and richer life?”

In this context, companies are reevaluating how they fit into an employee’s life. Many employers no longer expect workers to stick around long-term, and some clients are designing for more short-term employment relationships that give employees what they’re looking for at that moment of their life, Walker said.

Perks and office amenities can be viewed through this lens. With full-time office work a thing of the past for many, it may make more sense to offer employees a local gym membership rather than building an on-campus fitness center. This has deeper implications than simply where workers go to exercise, Walker said.

“Where do you want your community to be in your life?” Walker asked. “Do you want it to be in your local neighborhood, and that’s really where a lot of your social ties are, or do you want it to actually be in the office park?”

Goodbye, internet era. Hello, climate era.

The internet blew up the business world over the last 30 years, giving rise to new industries and transforming both the way business is done and the way work is performed. Climate change will be similarly disruptive over the next few decades, and companies are thinking through how they’ll adapt.

“Everything will be influenced by the climate: How we’re going to work, technologies, business models,” Walker said. “Your decisions on how your organization is going to work are huge.”

This starts with building design, given that buildings account for 40% of carbon emissions. Hybrid work policies also play an outsized role in the size of a company’s carbon footprint: If you’re telling employees they need to come to the office three times a week, that has implications for emissions. The initial switch to remote work in 2020 helped to decrease the consumption of transportation fuel in the U.S., according to research from Tufts University economist Steve Cicala. Still, more energy consumption at home nearly eclipsed the energy that businesses and industry saved.

Walker has one client organization that flipped that rule in the name of reducing emissions. Rather than requiring a minimum number of days in the office, that client imposes a maximum number of days in order to reduce emissions. Remote workers can only come in three times a year, he said.

“The negotiations and design of that was so different than other companies,” said Walker.

We don’t know what we’re doing — yet

I asked Walker if he’d venture a guess about what work will look like in two or three years. He tried to resist — ”anybody who tries to predict the future often looks quite foolish,” he said — but still offered one prediction.

“This moment is eerily familiar to the mid-‘90s, where everybody was like, ‘The internet is going to change everything,’” Walker said. “Then you’d get on the internet, and you’d try to download an article and you’d be waiting, waiting.”

The early days of the internet, when it wasn’t obvious to everyone just how transformative it would be, are similar to where we are now with remote collaboration, Walker said.

“We’re so in that moment where we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of what is actually good collaboration through this medium,” Walker said. “Most of what we’re doing is trying to replicate how we used to collaborate and work in person, now in a new channel, rather than designing the experience based on the affordances of this channel.”

Tools like AI-based transcription and interfaces that show how long each participant has spoken in a meeting are all interesting advances, but there’s still a long way to go, Walker said. Five years from now, we might look back on the remote collaboration of 2022 and barely recognize it.

“My hunch is we’re going to laugh,” Walker said.

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