Why Big Businesses Are Behind On Modern Workplace Norms (And What They Can Do About It)


Larry Alton

September 21, 2016

We’re beginning to enter an interesting new era of professional work and office culture, but not all businesses are changing at the same speed. For every avant-garde startup in Silicon Valley, pushing the limits of what can be defined as “professionalism,” there’s a corporate, bureaucratic giant fighting tooth and nail to avoid changing the company culture they’ve taken decades to build.

So what is it, exactly, that big businesses are resisting, and what can they do to make things better?

Modern Workplace Norms

I’ve written before about how the workplace is changing, but these are a few highlights of specific changes that big businesses tend to resist more than startups and smaller enterprises:

  • Working flexibility. Thanks in part to advancing technology and in part due to emerging studies that show people are just as—if not more—productive when working from home, more businesses are adopting work-from-home policies for their workers. In cases when they can’t, flexible hours are becoming the norm.
  • Culture and politics. Cultural standards are becoming more relaxed, thanks in part to the “hip” and youthful culture stemming from millennial entrepreneurs and the general vibe of tech startups. Dress codes, leadership hierarchies, and even workplace behavior is all becoming more lax.
  • Gig-based employment. We’re also entering an era where freelancing and gig-based work is becoming more accepted and more favored than full-time employment. If you pay attention to buzzwords, this is what’s known as the “gig economy.”

The Innovation Problem

As the Harvard Business Review reports, many big businesses struggle with innovation in general. This is due to a combination of factors, but all of them affect whether a business can easily adopt new workplace cultures and policies. For example, large companies tend to be “set in their ways,” and for good reason; they’ve taken years, sometimes decades to get in this lucrative position, and it stands to reason that they’ll keep operating in the ways that made them successful in the first place. In other words, it’s hard to convince a company to do something new because the old way is what got them where they are today.

There’s also a problem with the bureaucratization of businesses at the corporate level. There are more employees to manage and more employees to manage them, and as a result, everything becomes documented, everything becomes formalized, and lines of authority become more complicated; this is the nightmarish outcome of corporatization envisioned by Franz Kafka. This level of bureaucracy makes it extraordinarily difficult to initiate change; even if someone introduces a new idea, it may take multiple rounds of group-review and a long journey “up the ladder” before it gets accepted. And by that time, it may change entirely.

“This Is How We’ve Always Done It”

You’ve probably heard the story of five monkeys and a banana initiating a series of steps eventually leading to the monkeys exhibiting illogical behavior for the simple reason that “this is how they’ve always done it.” If you haven’t, read it here. This is the mentality that frequently seizes major corporations and prevents them from ever moving forward. In major corporations, leaders and employees are gradually replaced by newcomers, and eventually, people are following procedures just because those procedures already exist. This is distinct from the “the old way worked” argument because here, the behavioral patterns and policies aren’t effective; they just exist for the sake of existing.

What Businesses Can Do

Fortunately, there are some strategies that businesses can adopt to help themselves stay modern in the changing workplace environment.

  • Experiment. First, corporations need to start taking risks. Technologies and trends change at a faster pace today than they did 50 years ago thanks to instant communication and exponential development. To keep up, your business needs to be equally adaptive. Try something out, and if it doesn’t work drop it—you won’t be out much. If it does work, make it permanent and you’ll instantly move the company forward.
  • Start small. Nobody’s saying you have to change your entire company’s culture overnight and all at once. Start small, by changing one policy at a time; for instance, you could grant employees one “work from home” day to use per month rather than letting everyone work from home all the time.
  • Break up authority. You can facilitate more innovation and new ideas by breaking up some of the authoritative ties restricting your organization. Instead of having that infamous “ladder” to send things up for final decisions, let decisions happen at lower and lower levels, trusting your departments to handle themselves and hiring the right people for the jobs.
  • Make it easier to change. You can also institute policies that make your rules and policies easier to change. Try to simplify your review processes, and make it possible for anyone in your organization to have their voices heard. This is a difficult balance to strike, but it’s important if you want to remain progressive.

Big businesses don’t need to change all at once, nor are these new workplace institutions the “right” answer for every company. However, corporations have much to learn from their smaller, nimbler counterparts about how to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and employee needs. Even if your organization isn’t on board with these office culture and workplace changes, it should at least consider adopting these strategies to encourage more innovation and growth over time.


This article was written by Larry Alton from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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