May 21, 2020

Office Culture: Who Are We, Really?

Written by | Jim Stuart | partner

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Viktor Frankl

As we create a roadmap and prepare to return to work, I am reminded of Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which chronicles his life inside a Nazi concentration camp. It is one of the most profound and insightful books I have ever read and continue to reread through different stages of my life. In the book, Frankl outlines three principles in his search for the meaning of life, one of which is how we deal with unavoidable suffering. COVID-19 is today’s unavoidable suffering.

The way an organization’s leadership responds to COVID-19 puts their “true self” on naked display for all to bear witness. In this era of a global pandemic, inspirational posters adorning office hallways no longer veil what may be at the core of your company. This crisis shines a bright light on your true, authentic corporate culture.

Anyone who knows me knows that I place a great emphasis on company culture. That always hasn’t worked in my favor, but despite that, I carry the belief that it is better to be surrounded by “family” than it is to be surrounded by “employees.” This current crisis has reinforced that belief to my core.


Hello darkness, meet clarity.

What has your company done for you?

Great cultures show up in moments of challenge and struggle. As we move through our grand “work from home” experiment, many organizations have been exemplary in their support for their teams.  From the obvious tactics of making certain they have the right technology in place, to the not so obvious – like checking in on a regular basis to assess mental health and stress.

The essence of a strong culture and impactful leadership depends on the principle of putting your team’s needs ahead of your own. This crisis has given all of us an opportunity to see where leadership stands across a broad spectrum of businesses.

What has your company done for others?

Empathy is the hallmark of great leaders. Of all of the experiences and emotions that I have woken up to each day during this crisis, nothing has been more surprising and reaffirming than the great humanity on display around the globe, from the alley operas performed in Italy to our own neighborhood dance parties.

But above these highlight reels, many companies have done some amazing things, from re-engineering entire manufacturing processes to support mission critical supplies for frontline healthcare workers to shutting down profitable operations completely, rather than putting their people at risk.

Some admirable businesses decided to pay rent even when it is hard, while others chose not to even when it is easy. Some companies chose to stop paying employees because it is an option; others continue to pay their team because they should.

In the months and years ahead, I predict a ‘great reckoning’ as organizations are forced to answer tough questions from both their employees and the courts of public opinion.

This is as good of time as any to observe the decisions being made and contrast them against your organization’s stated culture and principles. The alignment, or misalignment, of these principles will tell you what the future looks like.


Going Forward – Hallmarks of Leading Companies

Coworking Space

Company culture, it is more than a poster on the wall.

Perhaps finally, companies will acknowledge the importance of culture as context for performance and employee engagement. Going forward, company operating principles will be well-established and show up in daily activities. We are already seeing this transformational drift in how shareholders view organizations with their response to the COVID pandemic. Never before has public shaming been so quick, nor has it ever generated such immediate response. Thanks, Shake Shack; let’s keep it real!

Your employer will be a bigger part of your life.

The crisis has given companies not only the opportunity, but also the responsibility to care for their teams in ways they never contemplated before. Companies are approaching employee wellbeing more holistically—not only in terms of the physical, but also mental and emotional wellbeing. Employees are recognizing the importance of wellness, meditation, getting outdoors, solitude and community in a profound manner. Companies have recognized this, as well, and will assuredly make it a new priority.

Also, as we have learned to appreciate our time at home, we have come to realize its drawbacks. I would expect companies to work hard at reinforcing employee engagement and seek ways to provide a ‘high fidelity’ experience for their teams at the workplace.

It’s lonely out there.

We were more or less forced down this social distance track, but once the coronavirus has left for good, some ‘big questions’ about our purpose will be left in its wake –  both professionally and in life. We have come to realize that socializing is the primary fuel of happiness, and now it needs to be in the right measurements. Sure, we will have survived the virus and learned the efficiency of a 100% digital lifestyle, but as appealing as it first seemed, something was missing. We need that something – our craving for a physical sense of belonging and a desire for human connection beyond pixels.

This imposed isolation has led to increased depression and loneliness. This was a trending topic pre-COVID and it is now front and center. Keeping people mentally healthy now shares the stage with physical well-being as among the greatest health issues facing Western societies.

Isolation is a primary factor in depression, anxiety and other significant mental health issues—and the need for physical and social distancing has only exacerbated this struggle. Previously, mental health may not have received the necessary attention it deserved. Now, meditation apps like Headspace and Calm are actively promoted by companies to tend to the anxiety that has cascaded into our everyday life.

Your employer and co-workers now get it; life and work can be a struggle. 

 After spending never ending days at home—especially without the support systems of school, childcare and cleaning services—we have all newfound respect for life’s demands and appreciation for all-things family. Expect leaders to more deeply understand the flexibility required to orchestrate your personal life, from cooking together to supporting kids in their schoolwork. I believe leaders will have a refreshed level of appreciation for the ways family and friends are critical to life and happiness.

Your workplace will get better.

As employees head back to the office, employers are being forced to re-think their approach to the workplace. Companies will deploy forensic cleaning techniques, more distancing and increased choices for employees across their work environment. In addition, we learned a lot of great things while working at home—comfortable places to relax between meetings, flexible hours, clean air, personalized space, working out, easy walks and good food…mostly. These new expectations will create new demands on the office. Organizations will have a new appreciation for the importance of the office and the need for supporting engagement. More than anything, leading companies will provide a reason to show up now that we know we can get work done at home.

Bringing it all home.

These have been trying times and yet the real hard work still lies ahead. Organizations now must lead. We must have the courage to do amazing things all the while aligning our stated values with our actual values.

Each day is precious, each life even more so. As the eternal optimist, I enter this next chapter of my business life hopeful that we will take ‘lessoned learned’ and apply them to a life ‘better lived’. As Viktor Frankl wrote, we have the “power to choose our response,” and I would wager that the wakeup calls for company culture will be ringing loud and clear in the years ahead.


Jim Stuart is a partner at Matter Real Estate Group, the developer behind

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