THE Real Stakes OF THE “Future of Work” DEBATE
Entrepreneur|September 2021
As companies and employees decide how, when, and where they should work in a post-pandemic world, let’s not forget this overlooked fact: If you harm your company culture, your customers will feel the impact.
ERIC SOLOMON and CATHY CARTIER

We had a group of friends over for dinner the other day, and the conversation turned to work, as it sometimes does. “I can’t wait to go back to the office,” said one friend, who works at a technology company. “No way,” said another, who works at a midsize law firm. “I’ll quit if they make me go back.”

“Well,” piped in a friend who leads a customer experience team, “I think what we really need is flexibility. I’m exhausted. My team is exhausted. I know our customers can tell, and it’s starting to hurt the business.”

Our friends around the table nodded. This, we realized, was the real stakes of the debate. People have spent the past year and a half arguing over whether remote work would remain permanent, but that has largely ignored a more existential question. This isn’t just an issue of how people work—it’s that the way people work impacts their customers, and whether those customers stay loyal.

We are two former CMOs for very different organizations— Eric has overseen marketing at consumer-facing companies such as Bonobos, and Cathy for localities such as the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. We understand the complexity that surrounds brand perception, and we believe that the health of a company’s internal culture is one of the most important factors. This should add a new dynamic to the conversation we’re all having about work—because the decisions companies make today will define their culture, and therefore their relationship with their customers, for years to come.

This is a delicate moment. Businesses are deciding how their teams should operate and interact, including whether or how often employees must be in their physical offices, and they’re making it up as they go. Some, like Twitter and Shopify, are allowing employees to work from anywhere indefinitely (at least at the time of this publication). Others, like Nike or Google, are investing in reengineered office spaces. Whatever happens, no one seems to think work will return to its pre-COVID form, with people stuck in a physical building nine to five, Monday through Friday. McKinsey Global Institute’s The Future of Work after COVID- 19 report estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the workforces in advanced economies could work from home between three and five days a week—without a loss of productivity.

As all this happens, we couldn’t stop thinking about the comment our customer service friend made at dinner. When teams are exhausted, customers notice and the business suffers. We wondered: As work cultures continue to shift, how will consumers’ perception of brands shift along with it? When we raised this with our extended network of acquaintances, colleagues, and friends, we found few people thinking about the question. But once we brought it up, everyone wanted answers.

To get out of our own heads, we contacted several of our colleagues who serve in various senior or C-suite leadership roles. That included the former CMO of OpenTable, a managing director at Google, the CEO of H&R Block, the CMO of Penguin Random House, and the CEO of Bonobos. We spoke to them about what specific cultural changes they’re seeing at their company and how those changes might influence perceptions of their brand. While no one has definitive answers, they helped us identify key things for leaders to consider as they strike the balance between what employees say they want and what will be felt by their customers.

This is an issue every leader should be thinking about. There are no right answers, but there is a right outcome. Everything may ride on it.

It may be hard to see a direct line from corporate culture to consumer perception. So let’s start with two examples.

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