Here’s the thing about knockoffs: even though they’re fashionable, they tend to lack quality. From a replica Chanel Flap Bag to an imitated Google office, copycats just don’t do the trick.
That’s certainly what we’ve found when we’re asked to help our clients with culture and employee engagement consulting. The businesses we’ve seen receive the lowest engagement measurements are usually those that anxiously introduce fun cultural imitations—thirty-foot slides, office putting ranges, turntables in music rooms—without realizing these perks clash with their strategies and their people. We call it Google-washing. And we see it all the time.
Many executives presume that fun workspaces are the key to productive employees (especially for younger staff.) They identify engagement problems in their organizations and respond with clumsy cultural initiatives. They sense mistrust between teams, so they erect open-office concepts. They worry their people aren’t dedicated, so they hand out branded tote bags. These Band-Aid solutions attempt to fix surface issues, but only mask deeper cuts.
Executives are right to care about their employees’ experiences. Amidst new challenges—increased marketplace competition, evolving employee expectations and technology-fueled collaboration—an organization’s ability to engage its people can make or break its business. We see these executives go wrong time and again when they assume that culture, specifically a fun culture, is the only way to connect with employees.
Processes, management and tools all impact an employee’s work life. And yet so many executives fixate on fun cultural appendages without examining their current technology, teamleads and cultural styles.
We get the thinking. Millennial stereotypes have leaked into HR strategy. Baby Boomer and Gen X HR experts maintain that younger staff need free swag and fun toys to stay motivated. When asked for evidence, they point to organizations like Pixar, Netflix and Google—corporations that have commodified playful and explorative work cultures to redefine entire industries. It’s easy to associate the success of these companies with their cultural symbols, their profit margins with their ping pong tables. But in this case the metonymy doesn’t work.
These garage-start-ups-turned-tech-giants wield in-office fun toys and free booze as one small part of a large strategic system. And these perks evolved with their companies. They weren’t added as an afterthought. It may be more interesting to talk about Adobe’s rock wall than its employee onboarding microsite, but both are important to its business. To reduce success to fun culture (and then assume that’s why its millennial staff perform well), is short sighted. So when we see executives measure their offices for climbing holds, we tell them to slow down and see if their corporate structure can actually support another wall.
Here’s a scenario we’ve seen before: an HR representative contacted us about an engagement problem at her organization. When we got onsite, C-suite Gen X directors complained that the younger employees were demanding. They told us, “Millennials like collaborating. We introduced these collaboration spaces, but no one uses them.” To which we asked, “What are they collaborating on?” And a director explained, “Well, nothing at the moment. They’re pretty heads-down on their own projects.”
This approach lacks authenticity. (And reeks of prejudice.) Executives shouldn’t simply rubber stamp the culture they want. Culture is experienced, created, exchanged and revised among all employees. It knows no hierarchy. Executives can shape culture through their choice in people, structures, management and tools. But they can’t impose cultural change with fun initiatives. When they attempt to, they discredit their already existing cultures, confuse employees and muddle their missions.
Employees see more value when executives take genuine steps to understand their experiences than make assumptions and create kneejerk initiatives. Ask yourself: which cultural styles is upper management modeling? Are these preferences reflected in project processes? What barriers do employees face to completing work effectively and efficiently? What are the characteristics and qualifications of the most junior employees? Once you recognize how your culture plays out at all levels, then you can decide which systems need to be reworked, reinforced or reinvigorated.
Maybe your organization’s culture is about exploration and creativity. Maybe those break-out areas make sense for you. But if your organization isn’t naturally fun, that pool table you just installed may do more harm than good.
Take time to understand your culture—what works and what doesn’t—to bring about meaningful cultural change. You may be surprised. Your culture may be working for your business better than you think. Maybe all it needs is careful refinement.