As companies are requiring employees back into the office, one of the most common reasons cited is culture. 

CEO’s will argue that their culture requires being together in the office. Others suggest that remote work is degrading or ruining their culture.  

The first reason listed by Andy Jassy, CEO at Amazon, for requiring employees back to the office recently was culture:

“It’s easier to learn, model, practice, and strengthen our culture when we’re in the office together most of the time and surrounded by our colleagues.”

“Our culture has been one of the most critical parts of our success the first 27 years, and I expect it will be in our next 27+ years as well. Strengthening it further is a top priority for the s-team and me.”

But here’s the thing. 

I’d bet a stack of cash that Jassy (and most CEO’s using culture in their RTO messaging) couldn’t describe with any detail what their culture is, how it works, or how it’s driving business results. 

Jassy talks in generalities about how people “tend to be more engaged, observant, and attuned…” in the office but offers no evidence or supporting data. 

The idea of corporate or organizational “culture” has steadily grown in popularity as an idea and concept over the past 40 years to the point that we simply accept any reference to it as if it’s a tangible thing. 

It’s not. 

The concept of corporate culture wasn’t invented until the 1980’s. Like many other popular management and HR concepts (I’m looking at you “employee engagement”), the concept of “culture” was created as an attempt to make sense of something in the workplace that is difficult to describe or quantify.  

And like employee engagement, culture was co-opted and monetized by management consultants and technologists who put their own spin on it and sold it as the next great “silver bullet” to sovling your workplace challenges. 

At the same time, these same consultants (with the help from some academics) began introducing the language of “culture” into Harvard Business Review and other trust resources until executive leaders started using it and accepting it as important.  

And then some companies started attributing their success to culture. Zappos, for example, was propped up as the poster child in the 2000’s. Tony Hseish. founder and CEO of Zappos, became a celebrity of corporate culture

The result of all this is that we end up with a concept like “culture” which becomes accepted by both employees and leaders as something of importance and value without any real understanding of what it actually is.  

This is why “culture” is being used as a primary tool to force employees back to the office.  

These CEO’s may not know exactly what culture means, but they know you don’t either. And since both parties agree it’s important, it’s hard to argue against it. Referencing culture is the perfect leverage to use to get you back in the office.

(Side note, they cite concerns about “innovation” and “collaboration” for the same reasons. We have accepted they are important, but there’s fuzziness about how they actually work. Hard to argue against.)

As I have been watching this play out, it has raised what feels like an important question for me. 

Is it time to leave behind the idea of culture at work?  

Over the past couple months, I’ve had over fifty conversations with HR and operational leaders at organizations of all types and sizes about remote and hybrid work approaches.  

Any time “culture” was referenced in these conversations as a challenge or hurdle to remote working, I asked for more detail. I learned that the real challenge was alsways more tangible and specific than just “culture.”

For example, one person shared that people don’t really get to know each other the same way they used to when they were all together in the office. This is a legit concern. Relationships are critical at work.  

But is this culture? Maybe.

That’s the problem. When the word culture is used, it always requires further explanation. 

In my experience, when you ask someone to define culture, they will almost always use two other concepts to do it: values and behavior. 

In fact, when you press most people to define it, they will say that culture means the alignment of behavior with organization values. This is important stuff. But, if that’s what culture means, then why don’t we just talk about values and behavior directly? 

Why do we need this ambiguous term “culture” to reference things that are more tangible and clearly understood?  This ambiguity is allowing bad things can happen. 

My questions about culture are not new. Twenty years ago, as an executive recruiter, my spidey senses would tingle anytime a hiring manager said they were rejecting a candidate because of “cultural fit.” 

When we allow culture to be used so loosely, invoking “culture fit” in recruiting and hiring has historically provided air cover for biased decisions based on race, gender, age and everything else you can name. 

“She’s not a culture fit” is often code for “I just don’t like her” or “she isn’t enough like me.” 

This has harmed countless people (and organizations). 

Is “culture” doing more harm than good?

There are a lot of companies out there who have done some great things in the name of culture. 

Ironically, when you dig into what’s below the surface in most of these organizations, you find clearly articulated values and behaviors that they have determined drive their organization’s success. 

These culture codes or manifestos are incredibly powerful within the organization. The truth though, is that if you took away the word “culture” from them, they would lose nothing about what makes them effective.

The power isn’t in calling it culture, it’s in the work that was done below the surface to create real clarity about what’s important and what matters.

This is where the value lies. So, it begs the question.

Would we be better off if we abandoned the term “culture” and instead forced ourselves to be more intentional in our language?

I think there’s a good case to be made here. This work is too important not to get it right. 

If you are going to use the term “culture” to make decisions in your organization (like forcing thousands of people to disrupt their lives and return to the office), then you should be able to answer these questions. 

  • What is culture and why does it matter?
  • What is your culture?
  • How does your culture drive your organizational strategy and success?
  • How do you manage and cultivate your culture? 
  • How do you measure your culture? 

These are not easy questions to answer. 

If you don’t want to do the work and ansewr them, then you shouldn’t be using the word. It’s irresponsible at best and profoundly harmful at worst. 

What do you think? Is it time to leave “culture” behind?



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Jason Lauritsen