Biotech giant Genentech has long been hailed as a great place to work. In the mid-2000s, magazine profiles highlighted its informal, freewheeling culture and mission-driven science but emphasized its campus’ many perks: made-to-order sushi, onsite day care and regular Friday evening parties known as “ho-hos.” Its C-suite leaders dressed up for Halloween each year, once piling into SUVs and running into rival drug-maker Amgen’s lobby for a photo before security showed up.
But in a pandemic, such perks—or such antics—aren’t as accessible. Currently, about 5,500 of the 13,000 employees at Genentech, No. 14 on Forbes list of America’s Best Large Employers, work onsite in an average week. While there have been some on-campus events, such as outdoor viewings of March Madness games, it now has virtual “office hours” with executives, injecting fun with opening credits that spoof TV shows. Executives still dress up for Halloween, but the costume reveal is virtual: CEO Alexander Hardy showed up as Ted Lasso with a “believe” Zoom background.
But in some ways, says chief people and culture officer Cynthia Burks, the pandemic has helped Genentech reinforce its culture. It prompted them to institute “protected time,” or blocked calendars between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m., giving employees time for breaks or to focus on heads-down work. The company hasn’t mandated a number of in-office days for workers whose jobs don’t require them to be onsite, letting teams develop their own agreements.
And the monthly “office hours” that replaced twice-a-year in-person town halls let workers not based at its South San Francisco headquarters ask executives more questions and see more stories about patients and researchers. The pandemic “has really allowed us to think about the experiences of people who are not tied to the main campus,” Burks says. “Culture doesn’t live in a place. It lives in our values.”
As we reach the second anniversary of the pandemic and many office workers remain remote, many companies are wrestling with what the squishy topic of corporate culture really means when the office is no longer center stage. The definition of culture that consultants like to repeat—“how things get done around here”—gets even harder to grok when the “here” is no longer a place most people go every day.
For many employers, says Gartner vice president Brian Kropp, one of the big concerns about hybrid work has been how they will manage different cultures that arise as the team—rather than the office—becomes even more central. “Are they in conflict with each other? Do you act one way online and another in the office? That’s a huge fear for them.”
He and others say that while a company’s overarching culture is still important, how it’s viewed is changing. “The task of CEOs and CHROs is quickly shifting from managing the company’s culture to harnessing and managing micro-cultures,” says Michael Burchell, an independent human resources strategy consultant who formerly worked for the Great Place to Work Institute. As individual teams increasingly decide where they work—and when—“we’re not going to have this one monolithic culture. If it ever did exist, it definitely doesn’t now.”
Also more important, says Burchell, is finding ways to prevent burnout and maintain flexibility rather than add fancy onsite perks. “What people are looking for is actually not the ping pong tables and meals,” he says. “What has shifted is the attention to ‘are employees exhausted, do they feel overworked, do they feel valued.’”
Indeed, one frequent theme Forbes heard when speaking with companies on the list was giving teams the ability to decide which days they want to work onsite. At No. 22 General Mills, about 80% of corporate employees are working a hybrid schedule where certain days or hours aren’t mandated but decided by individual teams and reviewed every three months. While it varies dramatically, an average is about two times a week, says CHRO Jacqueline Williams-Roll, noting that doesn’t necessarily mean two full days: “I think flexibility is table stakes.”
At No. 2 Southern Company, where nearly half of its 28,000 employees work in the field or in plants, working from home for the rest of its corporate employees “used to be seen as a benefit for folks who were strong performers,” or who had situations that merited it, says human resources senior vice president Sloane Drake. “Now, it’s a legitimate work practice.”
Drake says they also don’t have a corporate edict on the number of days in office; rather, it’s decided by teams, with most corporate employees working two to three days a week “hybrid”—at home, partially at home or hosting the team at an offsite location—and the other days in the office. “We are 1000% more flexible than we were pre-Covid.”
Meanwhile, Kausik Rajgopal, the CHRO of No. 26 PayPal, says that remote work has challenged the “informal, incidental, unplanned interactions I think of really as the mortar between the bricks” of a corporate community—a popular coffee shop at its headquarters was a particular gathering space for such interactions, but has gone mostly empty for the past two years.
PayPal has used virtual meetings to reinforce company priorities, he says, and brought on more speakers to emphasize diversity issues, invested in development training and counseling support and added six “wellness days” last year when everyone disconnected from email and shut down at the same time to help manage burnout.
“Our CEO is fond of saying ‘ultimately, you are what you do, not what you say,’” Rajgopol says. “I think we’ve had to—just like everybody else—be more imaginative.”
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