Thursday, August 20, 2015

Work culture - Significance, Impact and Challenges

Work culture, Cultural misfit, American/European/Asian work culture, Startup work culture, Tough work culture – key terms I have been hearing for close to 6 years now. Have been curious for quite some time to understand what exactly this means and why so much significance attributed to it. What prompted me to write this post now is this article Amazon-insiders-tell-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly. Am not vouching for its contents, but it raises few interesting points to consider. Also, this post is not intended to be a critic/analysis of the work culture at my current employment. Am just trying to put together my generic understanding of this topic.

Online search for ‘what is work culture in an organization’ throws a bunch of responses. An interesting article What-is-organizational-culture for further reading. Each of us would have developed a set of ideals by which we lead our lives, we have our own priorities and goals and ways of reaching them. We could extend it to a group of people, say a family or a sports team. The same when extrapolated to an organization could possibly explain most of its work culture. Apart from people, there are a good amount of other factors which could impact work culture – location, size, industry, market dynamics, so on and so forth. 

I don’t claim to have a mastery on this topic, but what I am more interested in is how this could potentially impact me as an employee and impact an employer’s hiring choices. Is there an ideal work culture which would work across the spectrum and an ideal employee who would fit in all cultures? If there is one, there would be no conflict and misfits. But, I believe there cannot be a one size fits all culture. We could look at it this way – each employee has a set of expectations from his/her employee and same way, each employer has a set of expectations from his/her employee. For example, consider an employee who is ambitious career wise and has work as his topmost priority. If he finds an employer who is willing to give him the required opportunities at a challenging pace, then they could be a perfect match. But, if the employer believes in the idea of slow and steady career growth, then we have a potential misfit. In this case, note that there is nothing wrong with either the employee’s expectations of rapid career growth or the organizations belief in slow and steady career path. It is just a case of misfit. These misfits are expected and inevitable, but that is not the problem. The problem I feel is that the idea of work culture is generally not well defined for all layers in an organization and the process to identify a fit/misfit continues to be a bit vague and more of a trial and error.

How important is it to have a cultural fit between the employee and the organization? From my understanding, this is critical and it will only gain more significance going forward. All the more so for new age organizations which are trying to build a culture of zero tolerance for mediocrity and expectations of top notch performance 365*24*7. This is relatively easy if we are talking of a small team in a startup, but a mammoth task to achieve in a large corporation. I don’t find anything wrong with an organization having this expectation from each and every one of its employees. Question is – what is needed to retain and motivate such a workforce? It is a given that an organization with such expectations has to ensure that the rewards are proportional to the expected performance. I don’t think there is any disagreement on this. By and large, such organizations are more than willing to pay top dollars for appropriate talent. If not, their only option is to cut down on expectations. 

I feel there is another challenge which is generally ignored and more like an elephant in the room. The issue is that the path towards excellence and towards burn out tend to be eerily similar. There is always a risk that in the pursuit of excellence, there could be exhaustion and burn out. The movie Whiplash covers this conflict pretty well. The question then is, in the path to meet 24*7 top notch performance, if an employee loses track, is the organization willing to give enough time and opportunities for the employee to recover and rejuvenate or treat the employee as a spent force to be discarded ? The answer to this question can be significant in shaping an organization’s culture. 

It is definitely quite tricky for both the employee and the employer to find the right match and my observation has been that this process is yet to evolve completely and there is a lot of room for improvement. The cost of a mismatch is high for both the parties involved. Will be interesting to see how this challenge will be addressed.