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Centaur Stage Episode 1: Is Corporate Culture Dead in Remote Settings? with Iulia Istrate

To kick off the first-ever episode of Centaur Stage, our new weekly show exploring bold ideas about the future of work and learning on LinkedIn Live, we debated how culture can be developed and maintained in distributed settings with Iulia Istrate.

In these debates, we have a few motions and no matter what, Marilyn, our CEO & Founder always picks the other side.

About Iulia

Iulia Istrate is a true thought leader in the remote workspace and a talent acquisition veteran. An Industrial /Organizational psychologist, she has been developing talent solutions for over 18 years. Iulia is also the host of the Skills for Mars a video-podcast series dedicated to the evolution of work.

Key Takeaways

This debate was structured along the lines of a 2018 Harvard Business Review Article "Culture Factor" that identified four common attributes of culture — that it is shared, enduring, pervasive, and implicit — noting that unlike strategy, which is set at the executive level, culture blends the direction of leaders with the knowledge and experiences of frontline employees.

Motion 1: Culture is implicit

The formation and communication of culture acts as a kind of silent language. It’s all in the implicit and tacit knowledge. Communicating corporate culture requires people to be co-located.

Making for a compelling first argument, Iulia indicated that she is ‘against’ this motion. In justifying the reasons behind her disagreement, Iulia says: “Culture is implicit and tacit when it really becomes engraved in the company. But before that, you need to communicate culture because it is explicit. But communicating culture overall simply requires having a message, finding a simple way to distribute it and most critically, have someone listen to it.” According to Iulia, this is difficult to do in both co-located and remote settings. She adds, “[Employees] need to understand the message and connect with it emotionally... You need a message that resonates with employees at the moment it connects. When both leadership and employees alike ‘walk the walk,’ that is when it becomes implicit.”

As with all motions, Marilyn must disagree with Iulia and share her reasoning. “There are a few points that make culture implicit and I don't know how you would replace that with technology just yet. First, is ‘place.’ I mean both the city that you work in and the building and the office and the way that it is laid out. For example, if you work for the NYTimes, the experience of walking into the glass building for the first time, seeing the printing press, taking the elevator up to your floor, cannot be substituted. Some parts of culture must be embodied and what you detect aren’t the values written on the wall, just the sense of how people behave, how they carry themselves, how they talk, and I don't know how we would do that remotely. Second, the part of culture that is the behavioral aspect, the stories, how you start the culture, these are implicit learnings. There is a lot of who you are going to be as a company that is based on your early interactions.”

Offering a counter-point, Iulia felt that these things depend on what stage of maturity the company is in, “When you are starting, it is easy to be co-located or to meet. It is way harder to split responsibilities, see the gestures, and mimic each other remotely. The technology isn’t there yet and I am not sure it ever will be. We're social beings, we like to be with each other. With effort and focus, making sure whatever is explicit is made available in a remote setting, could work. In multinational companies, employees have the same action orientation everywhere regardless of place. That is the implicit culture that you feel.”

Motion 2: Culture is Pervasive

Culture is pervasive, extending from the highest levels of leadership to the support staff and interns. This motion was split into two parts:

Motion 2.a. Onboarding is the first immersive step into a company's culture and can only be successful in co-located settings.

Iulia did not agree that onboarding is the first immersive step into a company’s culture. “It actually starts with recruitment,” she said. In terms of where she sat on this motion, “I am somewhere in between ‘for’ and ‘against.’ It is harder to do onboarding remotely. It is hard when you have never worked remotely and those people joining you don’t know what the building looks like, who the people are and where they have coffee, etc. These things that make you feel welcome, need to be replicated remotely. It is even more difficult if you are not checking whether new employees are aligned with your values. This results in a culture of ‘us versus. them’ Me the new joiner versus Them who have been here.”

“It’s like dating. There is only so much you can build while online,” said Marilyn. “During the probation period, the company and the employee are dating. There is a moment where you have to feel the company, see the people around one another. I believe HR professionals and most managers can do a lot in terms of trying to make things as explicit as possible and designing a journey of people who can have as many "real" experience as possible. “

The second part of this motion explores those aspects of culture that are related to diversity and inclusion.

Motion 2b: Culture is pervasive, and leaders that have been remote their entire career will not naturally foster diversity and cultural understanding in remote settings. Those leaders can only build a sense of cultural awareness when co-located with their teams.

This aspect is the focus of Iulia’s current research and area of study. Sharing whether she is for or against the motion, she said: “In short, no. But I think a lot of focus has to be put on this. If you ask remote leaders to be anywhere, and they choose to live somewhere that is financially good for them, but bad for when they need to transition into a role where they have to manage people from diverse cultures”

Citing research conducted by Sujin Jang, an Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD she says, “[Sujin Jang] talks about cultural brokerage, and the researchers say it takes 3-5 years of immersion into a national culture to understand it.... Getting leaders immersed in a culture is very important. The research also says that immersion into one culture will help you to understand others much easier because I am aware that there are varying points of view, and that I have to bridge a gap. Cultural knowledge, immersion, and diversity are important for leaders to foster diversity in their own teams.

“ I cannot possibly disagree with you on that... Before remote work was a topic multinational companies were already struggling with this. Jose Santos, another Professor at INSEAD writes about flying fish and dolphins. He says that people who have grown up and spent their formative years in their home country and who have become managers in that country are ‘fish’. They only understand what it's like to be in the water. Those who have managed outside of their home country are ‘flying fish’ that can understand the distance between cultures because of that experience. They are able to project themselves outside of the water. The ‘dolphins’ are people who have both grown up in a country other than their home country and managed people in another country. They are mammals, who live in the water. They are comfortable in their home country, and in a place outside of their home country and are able to measure that distance, adapt to both environments, and balance those cultural differences. ”

Motion 3: Culture is shared

The office is 'the commons,' a resource shared by the community. It makes individuals cognizant, even if implicitly, of how their actions affect the wider group and that they are contributing to a broader, collective goal.

Offering her viewpoints, Iulia believes that culture is shared. “If it is not shared, it is not culture. Even remote culture is shared, but we are not there yet. To really understand if there is such a thing as remote culture, we will need to see in 2-3 years the impact of this ‘remote experiment’ sees on culture.”

Referencing her Op-Ed in Wamda, Marilyn says, “In remote settings, we go from seeing the face to seeing the work. We go from evaluating people's contributions by seeing them produce work, to seeing the value they provide only through their output. I'm afraid culture will be rendered obsolete and that only control will remain."

Probing further, Iulia asked if control then becomes the culture itself. “Yes, but it is not a unifying culture?”

Motion 4: Culture is enduring

Organizations that prioritize culture are more resilient and agile both in times of crisis and in high growth phases. This type of enduring culture can only be realized when teams are co-located.

Offering a varying perspective, Iulia asks, “Do we really want culture to be enduring, co-located, or otherwise?” She continues, “If it is too enduring it can lead to stagnation. For sure you don’t want a "bad" culture to be enduring. For example, a culture solely created on efficiency can be damaging in the long run.”

She shares how the infamous “Just do it” slogan of NIKE hindered the culture, “ Their slogan led them to a culture of extreme action at the expense of teamwork and caring for one another. This hurt them internally, so they changed it to ‘just do it together.’... I'm not sure to what extent you want cultures to be enduring? You do want to change them at some point, maybe to be more agile or efficiency-driven, it really depends. “

“It depends on whether you perceive culture to be about the values or about the methods or the way we do things,” said Marilyn. “They are often mistakenly mixed together, you express your values by doing things a certain way. Values for me is the part that should be enduring. They are why the company exists. The part that can and should change is the how, adapting to the environment and the constraints.”

Iulia adds: “I agree with Darren Murph. The way they run GitLab is first, to be purpose-driven first, and next, they look at values. Part of that is looking at different cultures. You cannot unify cultures, but having values that allow you to learn from different cultures and accept them is more powerful than aligning cultures."

“What is the point of aligning cultures? If the idea is not to let people bring in their diversity and their points of view, then do not hire people from other cultures and stifle them.”

Just before the debate wrapped up, Moderator Marilyn allowed for a question from the audience: I worked for a company where we always used to say “change is in our lifeblood”? What is the balance between stability and agility in culture?

“According to research, change in one’s lifeblood is extremely powerful. Phanish Puranam from INSEAD co-authored a Harvard Business Review article about ‘change for change's sake’. It advises having little experiments with change to have them and get people used to it. You want stability, but you want to be ready to split away from it when the time comes. Not exercising that muscle of change will leave you hurting. Experiment in a safe way to see what happens, how you react, and why it is a good thing. It shouldn’t be the only mantra in the company but change for change's sake does build resilience in organizations. “

The Future of Work Is

As with all guests, Marilyn asked Iulia to tell us what she thinks the future of work is...

“The future of work should be and is about experimenting. We have never been through this, but thinking about how to add value and be better every day is paramount."


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