Has COVID killed the culture cult…

As anyone working in a medium to large organisation will be aware, culture has taken on a cult-like reverence since organisations switched from people managing people, to ‘people managing software to manage people.’

No longer do managers walk the floor to understand their staff and the office environment/mood. Instead, they let their fingers do the walking on keyboards linked to culture software. And culture software has become big business. Just search ‘culture software’ and at least seven advertisements appear on the first page of results.

There are even culture software conferences which, according to a mate who attended one in San Francisco, are large gatherings akin to a cross between an Anthony Robbins event and a Pentecostal service.

But first a little history – in prehistoric days before the internet, I worked with TNT. We were planning some professional development and team building programmes to improve the workplace culture. We did some informal research of staff. Curiously the results were split down the middle. Either the staff were all for being involved, or completely against it. Spoiler alert: Not every employee wants to play a part in the company culture.

One group of administrative staff – all aged over 40 – had no interest in professional development. They worked 9-to-5 and banked their salary to fund a family holiday, or new fridge, or help pay the mortgage. Their reason for working was simply a means to an end. Their family needed money to live and their job provided it. As one clerk said “I wouldn’t have anyone I work with in my home for dinner, so why would I want to have a group hug at some motivational session?”

Free food at work isn’t new

They were very shrewd too. The company provided free lunch for all staff. Yes, it’s true folks. Free food at work wasn’t invented by the internet age – it’s just another digital fallacy. Each morning we’d place our order at the cafe downstairs and at lunchtime a cafe employee brought huge trays of lunch orders to reception. Each order was labeled with the employee’s name.

But the administration clerks didn’t order a sandwich or salad. No, they each ordered a whole BBQ chook and roasted vegetables, then took them home for dinner. They brought in their own lunch each day and fed their families on the free food provided by the company. Consequently, a cap was put on the value of lunch orders.

That’s what I call a cultural insight!

But let’s return to present-day. Lots of research is currently being conducted about work from home and the intention of workers to return to the office. It even has its own TLA: WFH. Apparently research by Deloitte suggested 90% of its staff don’t want to return to full-time work at the office and want to work from home more often than not. This week Deloitte announced “staff can decide where and when they work.

So how will culture-cultists manage culture in a world of remote working? Particularly given so many employees prefer a non-invasive culture that let’s them work on their terms from home? Could the future of culture be low-touch? How will the software measure this new culture?

Will this new way of working mean, that when given the opportunity, more employees prefer less company culture in their work life than pre-COVID?

Regardless, the culture software is like so many other computerised tools – garbage in equals garbage out. And so it is with culture measurement. I’ve worked with a digital agency of less than 30 staff. The management use culture software to monitor the happiness level of the team. All staff work in one large warehouse space, each within touching distance of the people either side of them. You could throw a tarpaulin over the lot.

Over drinks one night, some of the staff shared with me how much they play the system by turning the happiness dial up or down, just to screw with the heads of management. One account manager said, if they can’t be bothered reading the room by talking to us, then we’ll have fun fiddling with their heads via the software.

During lockdown I was discussing covid-culture with my bank manager. He’s with one of the big four banks. He explained his bonus is linked to the happiness dial on the culture software. The stronger the happiness level between senior and middle management, the bigger the bonus pool.

So dear reader, guess what all the staff have done? The middle and senior managers have agreed to scam the software to maximise the bonus pool for all concerned. Nothing they enter into the software is correct. Everything is designed to maximise their salary, not provide feedback on the culture. The Minister for Culture at the bank must think she is doing a fabulous job, given the software’s happiness ratings. Maybe the Minister is part of the bonus pool too?

I’m from the culture is caught, not taught school. Culture is a living, briefing thing that continually evolves as new people join and others depart an organisation. You provide staff with the right leadership, responsibilities, boundaries and feedback mechanisms and let the culture happen. And as Peter Drucker is alleged to have said “culture kills strategy for breakfast“. Great workplace cultures make an enormous difference to the wellbeing of staff as well as to productivity, loyalty and general organisational performance.

But this doesn’t mean you hire people to fit a specific culture criteria. Cloning employees to suit a culture creates inbreeding problems. You may as well get the banjos out and roll the Deliverance tape. Diversity is the key to a healthy culture.

Maybe it’s the rise in weird job titles for Human Resources Managers that has caused the culture cult? The fancier the title, the more the HR Managers need to use culture software to appear as flash as the title? Here are just a few I’ve found:

  • Culture Operations Manager
  • Champion of Office Happiness
  • Chief Happiness Officer 
  • Chief Heart Officer 
  • Chief People Pleaser 
  • Culture & Geek Resource Manager
  • Director of Attracting Talent
  • Employee Experience Designer
  • People Champion
  • Senior VP of People Operations 
  • Vibe Manager & Head of all things Awesome
  • Chief People Officer
  • Chief Talent Officer

Change is inevitable, but not always an improvement. I’m curious to see how COVID will change company culture and how culture software will evolve, given the way it is currently being scammed. And of course there is the problem of how companies deal with public liability insurance for staff working from home. Who covers a ‘workplace injury’ when the injury occurs while on-the-job walking down the front steps?

Although of more immediate concern, is the quality of future leaders who don’t know how to manage people, because they’ve only ever managed software to manage people. Frightening really.

Gotta go – some marketing automation software is asking me to rate my satisfaction level of how a parcel was handed to me by a delivery driver. Can you imagine that workplace culture?


  1. I remember when I joined the workforce we had a ‘Tea Lady’ come through the office with her trolley making tea and coffee along with an assortment of cakes and biscuites (free of course). She also emptied Mr Taylor in Account’s ashtray.

    Do you have the same feelings about techlology and systems such as NPS to measure client satisfaction. Similar to monitoring company culture, talking to clients and spending time with them will provide the best feedback as to thier satisfaction. (before they leave)

    • Yes Osman, I had a tea lady too and she had to ration the cream biscuits so everyone got their share. My feel is that NPS is overused, or a substitute for real dialogue. You can’t beat a conversation with clients, staff, suppliers to take the temperature. It usually means if there is a problem, you catch it as it starts bubbling, not after it boils over…

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