Cultural context matters

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It is known that most companies have been reevaluating their remote work policies and have been slowly requiring employees to return to the office more regularly. Among them, some of the biggest names in tech like Google and X have required a return much earlier on than expected, with the latter having an incredible shift to a full in-office policy following the recent change in leadership.

The popular argument about “the boss’s need to see people working” as always seemed shallow to me given the unmeasured risk that that would add to companies in industries that struggle to keep their workforce for a long period of time.

But when reading “How Google Works” by Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg**,** I got to understand why Google’s leadership used to be, and still likely is, very pro-office:

“It was practically impossible for an engineer or scientist to walk down the long halls without running into a colleague (…) . This sort of serendipitous encounter will never happen when you are working at home. Googles AdSense product (…) was invented one day by a group of engineers from different teams who were playing pool in the office. Your partner or roommate is probably great, but the odds of the two of you coming up with a billion-dollar business during a coffee break at home are pretty small, even if you do have a pool table. Make your offices crowded and load them with amenities, then expect people to use them” - p.40

Contrary to what many may say, a return to the office isn’t always about managers control and the example above illustrates that well. But even though the “unexpected innovation” argument for the office return sounds compelling when put this way, and I agree that it definitely helps to achieve it, it is nowhere near sufficient in most cases.

Like in every other discussion, context matters.

Each company goes through many different stages throughout its lifetime. Both peacetime or wartime (terms coined by Ben Horowitz) stages, will disproportionally contribute to a company’s working culture. For example, if a company has “a lot” of money to spare, it can have the luxury of time and bottom-up democratic decision making, which inevitably can also create the conditions for successful new ventures.

But when a company is struggling to survive or is facing an imminent threat, any deviation from top-down directives, as well as the in-person “serendipitous encounters” and pool table games, will likely be seen as a waste of precious time.

Another counter argument is that most companies do not have the assumed high ratio of quantity to quality of engineering talent that Google had and still has. In 2003, when AdSense was released, Google allegedly already had over a 1000 employees and an article in May 2003 from New York Times, mentions that Google had about 400 programmers in the main headquarters.

Most tech companies today are not like Google was back then. How many companies do you know that have over “400 programmers” nowadays? How many of them are able to pay top of the market to have the smartest, and/or most experienced, people in world working for them?

No second division football manager manages their team as if they had the top 11 players in the world. So why should you? Yes your company can likely afford a few pool tables and arcade machines, but can it also have the cafeterias, dedicated cooking chefs and all the other office amenities and contractual benefits?

Beyond technical skills, company stage and company size, there are also other dimensions that impact a working culture and subsequent innovation, such as the average employee’s age. A company made of 30-year old engineers will be fundamentally different than a company of young 20-year olds because those individuals will value different personal and professional aspects in that stage of their lives.

So read and learn from the best but be realistic and pragmatic based on your own company’s situation. Don’t apply what worked for Google expecting that it will work for your business.

But make no mistake however. Humans are social beings. As anecdotal as it may seem, I don’t think it is a coincidence that a lot of my former colleagues cherished the “good old times when we all knew each other in the company”. Most people like the camaraderie that is born out of working in an office.

But as Mark Mortensen neatly states in his remote work article in Harvard Business Review:

“All decisions in this space have trade-offs, and different groups experience and weigh them differently. The only productive way forward is for leaders to engage employees and work together to develop the most mutually beneficial model possible for their organization.”

Context matters.

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