Keeping workers aligned with a mission will become harder, but people have found new ways to connect

“If you like it, you love it” is how Carlos Brito, AB InBev’s chief executive since 2005, describes the global brewer’s strong internal culture. The company’s hard-driving ethos comes from the top. “Everyone has a belief they could be Brito,” one alumnus of the group’s management training programme told me once.
AB InBev’s ambitious trainees may soon have to adjust their aim. A process to replace their leader — possibly with an outsider — is under way. These changes come as coronavirus is putting extraordinary new pressure on corporate cultures everywhere.
Since the pandemic started to lock down economies and shut down workplaces, strong existing ties between colleagues have sustained teams. If you recognise everyone on the videocall from the in-person meetings you used to have, it is easier to strike up a virtual rapport.
But the hybrid future of work will challenge organisations to find different ways to induct and introduce newcomers, possibly including Mr Brito’s successor. Keeping even long-serving staff aligned with the corporate mission will become harder, the longer they spend away from the workplace.
Anthropologist James Suzman, author of a chunky new history of work, told me during a fascinating discussion at the recent FT Weekend Festival, that over decades, the office became “what the village used to be during the agricultural era”. But lockdown began to “cut away at the social function of the office [and] it ceased to be a binding force”.
As social animals, though, humans have an endless capacity to adapt. That is already obvious in efforts to shape or show off corporate culture online.
McKinsey staff members, tapping a time-honoured tradition of the company song, organised a surprisingly moving (for me, at least) online rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”. Remote-working engineers at Stripe, the payments software business, brainstormed solutions to a simulated lunar crash as a bonding exercise.
As a wave of recruits arrives for the first day at the online office, human resources departments are blanket-bombing them with welcome videos from senior staff and invitations to “buddy” virtually with colleagues. According to a recent article in Personnel Today, one company even sends its new arrivals breakfast on their first day.
What is true for offline corporate culture initiatives is true online, too. If you are not part of the “cult-like culture” that management thinkers Jim Collins and Jerry Porras once identified as typical of organisations that were “built to last”, you will be cynical about singsongs and group bonding. If you are aligned with the culture, your enthusiasm may grow — to Mr Brito’s “if you like it, you love it” point.
Culture used to go rotten or rogue at the fringes of large organisations. The East India Company’s paramilitary “regional executives” in India in the 18th century often pursued their own strategies, for good and (mainly) ill, without the London headquarters finding out until weeks later.
But it is hard now for any web-enabled team member to be truly remote. That gives companies another way to guide culture. But remote working has also loosened physical links between employee and employer, and given staff licence to make new connections or revive weak ties.
Individuals now “have the time and inclination to reach out beyond their established relationships”, says Laura Empson, author of Leading Professionals, about how to run professional services firms, even if, like a shaken kaleidoscope, “we don’t yet know what shape the fragments will form”.
She was moved when her academic peers spontaneously shared their collective wisdom about online teaching, to help her and other management professors handle the abrupt shift away from the classroom when Covid-19 hit in March. This outburst of collegiality was cheeringly at odds with the commercial logic of competition between universities, she told the recent British Academy of Management Conference.
With offices off-limits, “people have begun to find community again in other, completely different new ways,” Mr Suzman points out.
Organisations that were always good at shaping the way their employees work and behave — McKinsey, AB InBev, and others — will probably find that the shift to hybrid work helps them to reinforce their strong cultures. The corollary is that companies with weak cultures, which have so far merely “muddled through” the crisis, in Prof Empson’s phrase, could fall apart.
And all companies are likely to discover, that often it will be the staff who set the norms of the new working culture, rather than the CEO.
Twitter: @andrewtghill