Over recent years there has been an increasing number of companies trying to appeal to a new generation of employees. This is in response to the rise in so-called Millennials increasing in number in the workplace and wanting to work differently, and businesses following the lead of the big tech companies that are perceived as the meccas of cool places to work. However, what many businesses have failed to grasp is that sticking in a hammock, a few ping pong tables, a couch and a bit of astroturf without changing anything else doesn’t suddenly make them contemporary and a modern place to work, but instead is simple ‘culturewashing’.
“‘Corporate Culturewashing’ is simply a series of gimmicks that hold little value in actually affecting any meaningful change in updating the business culture, but are great at grabbing headlines and looking as though the business is modern and a great place to work.”
The image for this article is a perfect representation of culturewashing – buying some cool ping pong tables to give the impression the business is ‘cool’ and ‘laid back’, but the second an employee starts using it, everyone stares at them in disgust as they should be working. This means these new additions to the office are actually nothing more than props, giving an illusion to clients a prospective employees, but in fact are extremely negative to the culture of the business, rather than being positive as it acts as a constant physical reminder of something that cannot be used as it is ‘frowned upon’. It is like constantly teasing a dog with a treat but telling it off when it finally eats it.
This inauthentic way to improve a company culture, also extends to the creation of cool new mission statements, detailing the latest values and cultural guidelines that look absolutely brilliant and may even extend to a few catchy slogans and words on the wall for everyone to see. Yet the underlying business behaviours often do not change, meaning employees quickly realise it was just an expensive internal branding exercise that pays lip service to how the business thinks it should behave, without the proper consideration and work required to enable that change to happen. The result is often the antithetisis of what the good intentioned purveyors of this new culture were trying to achieve, whereby employees feel they are just being lied to and feel confused as to how they should behave as the business culture on paper says one thing, but the behaviour of the business is markedly different.
“And when you break culture down to its most basic form, company culture is nothing more than a set of rules and customs everyone aligns behind. So trying to complicate updating the culture by using cool new office props and branded booklets, doesn’t really work.”
The sad reality is that employees experienced the same as consumers with ‘greenwashing’, whereby major businesses would crudely set up new environmental programmes that they launched with a lot of fan fair, when in fact they were nothing more that a marketing campaign to convince consumers of a company’s new green/environmental connections, yet didn’t actually change any of their highly polluting behaviours or processes. One example of this in the past was a major off-road car manufacturer who continued to produce large, high polluting vehicles, but they offset millions of tonnes of CO2 produced by their vehicles by investing in more efficient cooking stoves in Africa. It soon became clear that the company were not in fact more environmentally friendly, and this so called environmentally friendly car brand was simply paying lip service to it as that’s what they thought their customers wanted to hear. It wasn’t until consumers started to see past this greenwashing and started to demand businesses actually become more environmentally that things started to change, which is now starting to be echoed within businesses as employee demand is also changing.
The rise of the modern employee, who bring with them new ways of working, communicating and learning, are starting to demand the businesses they work for also start to make meaningful change and not adopt culturewashing tactics as it is inauthentic and they can easily see through it.
Instead what is needed is a much deeper change when it comes to company culture that really looks at understanding the modern employee and the needs of a modern workforce to design a modern workplace and adopt a new style of leadership that authentically engages a new generation of employees who are going to be the lifeblood for the future success of businesses. Until many established businesses with traditional ways of working do this, they are going to continue to find it more and more difficult to attract, engage and retain the best talent and instead see it all move to more forward thinking businesses or the startup world as they operate in a way that much more closely aligns to how they want to work and to get the most out of them… and if they do have a ping pong table, they are allowed to use it!