The Collapse of "Corporate Hegemony" As We Know It.

Today`s Interview Series comes as a continuation of a conversation I recently had with Cristina Muntean, a Thought Leadership Partner for Leaders and Future Leaders in Europe.

Today`s Interview Series comes as a continuation of a conversation I recently had with Cristina Muntean, a Thought Leadership Partner for Leaders and Future Leaders in Europe. As I was browsing Linkedin one morning with my morning coffee in hand, I stumbled upon her commenting on an article from the Financial Times reflecting on the meaning of “corporate hegemony”. It got me thinking. I read it once, twice, and I knew I wanted to explore her thoughts further. So I wrote her a quick message and asked if she was open to continuing the conversation and turning it into a blog post. And of course, in typical Cristina Muntean style, full of kindness and empathy, she said: I would love to.

It starts like this.

“Could the global debate about the #returntotheoffice hide a greater significance - the collapse of the #corporatehegemony as we knew it for the last century and a half?

I was reading the FT column the other day. A phrase stuck with me during this reading.

The author mentions: "If you wanted a symbol of corporate hegemony, you could hardly do better than London City cluster or the rebuilt World Trade Center site."

I stopped reading. The phrase "symbol of corporate hegemony" struck a chord, so I wanted to explore what was lying underneath.

For the last six months, I have engaged with many leaders about the ongoing debate about returning to the office. The lines in the sand seem to be defined: humble leaders who put effectiveness and their employees' well-being first seem to come across as more open-minded, flexible, and willing to consider and embrace a hybrid or even a total remote model of work.

On the other side, we have heavyweights like the CEO of Goldman Sachs and WeWork (all biases aside :-) who are pushing for physical presence in the office. They do so with utter disregard for what data is showing: for the last 18 months, people in the service sector who do not engage in manufacturing and other contact work are much more productive when they can choose the location of their work.

At the first look, the "battle" is about the location of one's working station. But we cannot ignore the deeper symbolism of the office building, which is kicking and fighting to survive the post-pandemic labor market reset.

The tall, shiny, luxurious office building was, from the very beginning, a symbol of success and power. Success: we have made it through, look what we can afford, and power: you come to us so that we can dictate the rules of the game.

I remember a global executive search firm that opened new luxurious offices on Na Prikopje with grand fanfare and glamor in 2007, only to close them a year and a half later under the hit of the economic crisis.

So, what is this really about? Is it really about the office as a symbol of collaboration and group productivity? Or is it about our managers' emotional needs to feel bigger than life because they are the bosses from the shiny office?

Power and success have a habit of rubbing on us. We all can fall into the trap of believing that we are only as good as our external symbols of social status.

But this has nothing to do with #leadership, not with #sustainability.

For organizations that really mean it in terms of sustainable business, that want to stay on a market that is increasingly buying more on #values rather than (cheap) value, a shiny office building - the symbol of corporate hegemony, authority, and reckless power - could soon become a liability.

The last 18 months of the pandemic opened the doors to a new world of office politics – be in the office or allow remote work. Many employees reported that they feel more productive if allowed to work from home. However, in many big companies, executive management insists on employees coming back full time. Is this a realistic expectation?

The executive management of all organizations needs to sit down and ask themselves from where their people can be most productive and how to create value that is aligned with the team and company objectives. I’m afraid that many times managers make emotional decisions driven by fear (they are concerned that their people might not perform, which would reflect on their personal compensation and career success); they later rationalize these decisions (we need people back in the office because we want to support collaboration and productivity). We all need to be more honest with ourselves and open about the real reasoning behind our decisions.

Long story short - after the pandemic, there will be organizations that will choose to go fully remote (good for them); there will be organizations that will decide to stay office-centric (and they will face massive fluctuation and recruitment issues short, mid, and long term); and there will be organizations that will go hybrid, which is a way of looking for the best, most agile option that helps the company to meet the current needs of the market. I believe that hybrid and remote work organizations will be the ones that will win the game long term.

Companies were previously afraid to allow too much flexibility, but now they no longer have the excuse. Can the hybrid model of work be the solution where employers and employees meet in the middle?

Absolutely. Hybrid work is agility in practice. The paradox is: if you want to lead a successful hybrid organization, you need to think remote first, then add proximity, intimacy, and humanity to the equation. That means that organizations need to have a proper infrastructure that allows people to connect from anywhere. Then they need to create the processes that enable people to meet in a physical office to tackle human issues such as relationship building, on-boarding, collaborative decision-making, conflict management, and all further activities where physical presence is helpful. As long as we understand that we need more time and quality space for deep work (WFH/WFA) AND we need proximity and intimacy to feed our emotional and social needs (WFO), we can be incredibly successful as individuals and organizations.

How did leadership styles have to evolve to accommodate remote work? Was this a temporary solution?

I don`t know if it was a temporary solution. I believe that many managers hoped it would be a short-term solution. In leadership, two moves needed to happen: from authoritarian to empowering (building autonomy and accountability in people) and from hands-off (because the physical presence took care of many issues related to connection and relationship-building) to intentional and hands-on. I call this Humanity 2.0: the more technology we add to our work, the more mentally and emotionally present we need to be for ourselves and our people.  

We observe a desire for change in a company culture where values and empathy are part of the company strategy. Can the old and traditional leadership styles survive in this new era?

That is a good question. We need to remember that organizations are part of a much larger system (the nation). If the nation is defined by authoritarian tendencies, then we can also expect to find these tendencies in organizations. I call this healthy cells in a healthy body - a company will find it very hard to act against the significant systemic movements happening at the societal level. The opposite is also true: it is hard to lead an authoritarian organization in a liberal, democratic culture that values autonomy and empowerment.

I would also like to add that many organizations in Central and Eastern Europe were barely aware of the concept of company culture when the Covid hit. So, for us, this is perhaps a chance to get it right from the very beginning. We need to remember that company cultures exist, no matter if we want them or not; the only difference is how aware we are of their existence and their impact on our overall success. The more aware we become, the higher the chance to build a culture of which we can be proud.

Incredibly curious about the future development of this trend. It is a great time to be alive :)