Culture, networking, and other workplace mainstays are making a
comeback. How businesses are returning to circa 2019—but with a twist.
By Jonathan Dahl | Illustrations by Tim Ames
Prepandemic habits, routines, and demands are returning—but firms and workers are out of practice.
Why it Matters
Many companies and careers have
been sidetracked by failing to adjust
in times of transition.
Reset priorities, especially around networking, building corporate culture, and handling renewed demands
At every corporate level, experts say, all of this will be difficult to adjust to. That’s in part because everyone is out of practice, whether it’s an HR executive trying to rally staffers around a company’s purpose, or a manager trying to meet prospective job contacts face-to-face at a conference. Most importantly, many of these old-school habits have changed in subtle ways that can be hard to track. Here’s how it breaks down.
The LinkedIn request to connect wouldn’t have struck the marketing executive as odd had it not been for the elevated number of requests he’d been getting lately—including 11 on that day alone. “I never knew how popular I was,” he jokes. A year ago, he says, he might have received one or two during a normal week. “But everyone is doing it wrong,” he says. “They’re pretending to know me. And they’re not even attaching a message.”
The CEO was preparing for an earnings call covering less-than-stellar results when he started feeling an unusual amount of pressure. The firm’s earnings had declined before, especially during COVID, but back then, analysts and investors had understood the challenges he was dealing with. Now, with earnings down and patience wearing thin, he expected a slew of tough questions.
And then there was the HR executive, who was feeling a different sort of pressure. She had been tasked with helping the company rebuild its culture. That meant more in-person events, consistent messaging about the firm’s purpose, and regular town-hall meetings. “The last time it was like this was… 2019,” she remembers.
And that’s exactly the point. As economic and inflation woes promise to make 2023 a tough year, corporate leaders are noticing a distinct change in how business is operating. It feels very much like a return to the normal of the prepandemic years. Given the upheaval of COVID, expert after expert had predicted that it would change the world irrevocably. In numerous ways it has. But to the surprise of many, an intriguing number of old workplace habits, mainstays, and goals have reappeared, and they’re affecting all levels of the corporate ladder. Together, they suggest that even as the business world changes, it tends to cycle back to the norms of the past—albeit with some adjustments.
It’s just one more twist that has smart leaders and career-minded employees resetting their priorities. Words like “culture,” “networking,” and “revenue growth” are replacing an intense focus on, say, the Great Resignation, quiet quitters, or returning to the office. For instance, networking was virtually nonexistent when the labor shortage was widespread. Now the need to attend conferences, find mentors, and stay in touch with industry contacts is back with a vengeance. So is the need to develop a corporate culture, an objective which had been easy to dismiss amid the panic of the pandemic. Finally, there’s the workplace reality that C-suite leaders must accept: the free pass they got for poor earnings is over. It’s back to being scrutinized every quarter. Back to setting goals, back to making the numbers—“back to the future,” as Abbie Martin, principal at Strategic Talent Advisor, describes it.
We all remember how we used to network, right? You met a lot of people for coffee, went to company parties, and attended some great conference bashes in fun-filled cities like Las Vegas and Miami. And then the pandemic swept that world away and forced all of its networking online—to Zoom calls or Zoom conferences. It wasn’t as much fun as gossiping with colleagues at a water cooler or picking up gift bags from exhibition booths. But the efficiency of it all—business-travel costs all but vanished for a while—suggested that the corporate world might remain largely remote even after the lockdowns ended.
That’s not quite how it’s working out. As soon as the face masks started to come off, people looked for ways to meet each other in person, even if they preferred not to slog into the office. Add in the fears of a recession and layoffs, and the demand for in-person encounters took off.
This year, the trade-show industry, a $15 billion business that tanked during COVID, is expected to capture nearly two-thirds of its 2019 revenues before summer. And these aren’t just the standard get-togethers of yore; they’re glitzy shindigs—whether a mega-conference or an intimate leadership dinner at a four-star restaurant. “The theme of 2023 is ‘big’,” says Martin, who adds that her clients are deep into planning their late-2023 social calendars. Ariel Schur, principal at ABS Staffing Solutions, says she has been “inundated” with invitations to both one-on-one meetings and networking events: “It’s intense.”
An ‘Intense’ Return to Networking
The business case for all of this is fairly clear. Even if the 50 percent drop in business travel in 2020 saved firms millions of dollars, it didn’t net out the loss in potential revenue. Surveys show that every dollar spent on business travel brings in about $12 in new revenue—such is the value of meeting in person. Road warriors know this all too well: A recent survey conducted by research firm Morning Consult found that 80 percent of employed Americans and 86 percent of business travelers say that face-to-face interactions are important for “maximizing company success.” Even so, networking 4.0 isn’t quite the same. Conference planners say that it’s become professionally acceptable to attend conferences via video when illness or double-bookings arise—or when companies are cutting costs.
“Nothing can replicate utilizing all five senses while interacting in person,” Schur says. “It’s as if we were all in jail, and now we are free again.” Many recruiters also agree that their conversations with candidates have changed significantly. Prepandemic, discussions revolved around specific job requests. Now, experts say, these exchanges, conducted in person, are much more candid, thoughtful, and vulnerable. Schur says that candidates are asking more questions about potential roles, as well as about employers’ values and good works; employers are asking similar questions to ensure quality fits and long-term retention. What was once transacted over one phone call now stretches across two or three.
“It’s not just, ‘Here’s my resume,’” says Laura Weiss, a principal at Korn Ferry who specializes in coaching and spurring innovation. “It’s ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is my purpose?’” Recruiters say that an increasing number of higher-level executives, too, are planning long-term career moves, with many looking to leave draining jobs for more meaningful ones. Weiss say candidates don’t hesitate to cop to their exhaustion. “You never heard that before,” she says.
A Time to
Even if they hadn’t quite figured how to do it, companies were trying hard pre-COVID to increase employee engagement and loyalty. Those that struggled the most defaulted to what experts might call “culture lite”—from the ping-pong games of millennials at Silicon Valley start-ups to the proverbial pizza parties in the conference rooms of big firms. But other organizations have put forth serious efforts in this regard: as far back as 2014, 72 percent of executives in one Korn Ferry study called culture “extremely important” for performance. Leaders acknowledged that they needed to focus not only on leadership goals, but also on employee goals—greater diversity, more environmental sensitivity, and better transparency. DEI teams were expanded, ESG became a catchphrase, and pay equity for underrepresented groups became a goal, if not the norm.
Not all of this went away during the pandemic. George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police in May 2020 spurred a racial reckoning in the corporate world, with firms pledging millions for minority career development. But talk to most CEOs for longer than five minutes, and you’re bound to hear a lament about the loss of culture during COVID. In the frenzy of the pandemic, culture was often put aside as leaders struggled to keep the lights on and moved millions to remote work. The effects of those decisions are still with us. Remote employees regularly report feeling isolated and depressed because of a lack of social interaction. Middle managers—who handle most hybrid issues—are feeling the strain in particular, with the worst work-life balance of all employees and the highest levels of stress and anxiety. According to a new survey from the Future Forum, a workplace think tank, some 40 percent of executives say they are dissatisfied with their work environment.
Risa Mish, a professor of management at Cornell University, says that with growth stalling and the economy on a downswing, firms are scrambling to reprioritize culture. “Lots of companies that stopped paying attention to culture are finding out that’s particularly problematic now,” she says.
As companies and their widely dispersed workforce settle into a hybrid schedule, they are undergoing a “re-culturing,” says Melissa Daimler, chief learning officer at online teaching company Udemy and author of ReCulturing: Design Your Company Culture to Connect with Strategy and Purpose for Lasting Success. “Leaders recognize that culture needs to be agnostic to location for it to work,” says Daimler. While many leaders believe that bringing back workers to the office will rebuild culture, employees who return often don’t talk to each other, she notes; they just work at their desks and do their Zoom meetings in the conference room.
Some leaders believe that re-culturing could prove crucial to building and retaining a highly skilled and motivated workforce. Not everyone who left their job during the Great Resignation did so for more money. In fact, the combination of the labor shortage and the rise of the purpose movement is part of why leaders are returning to active management of culture, says Yvonne Randle, executive vice president of business consultancy Management Systems and author of a book on corporate culture. “It doesn’t take long for things to get way out of line if effort isn’t put into culture,” she says. Margie Warrell, PhD, of Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession and Executive Development practice agrees that most firms’ culture grew weaker due to the turnover that occurred during and after the pandemic. “It’s a big task for leaders to fix it,” she says.
But how do they that? Many experts say that in today’s environment, culture actually starts with removing dividing lines. Don’t emphasize the difference between remote and in-office workers, for example, and offer opportunities to both sides. “Use elements of each to reinforce core values,” says Kate Kellogg, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management. That can include making remote workers integral to meetings and projects, and showing sensitivity toward the stress points they face, from long commutes to childcare issues. “Leaders need to get those two groups working together,” says Kellogg.
For the in-office crowd, open floor plans and casual dress codes can communicate the firm’s values of openness and transparency. For remote workers, Zoom calls can express appreciation for achieving key goals. Companies can even convey their mission in their recruiting messages: to emphasize their commitment to creating a healthy work-life balance for staff, some firms will show workers running or doing yoga, for example. Multinational firms will take into account the culture differences between the countries in which they operate as they work with their staff and stakeholders.
Above all else, experts stress that creating a culture starts with the firm’s leadership clearly setting and embracing organizational values. The CEO must embody the mission statement, many experts say. “CEOs are essentially the architecture of the firm’s culture,” says Warrell. “They are the thermostats, not the thermometers. They set the emotional tone.”
On the Comeback Trail
Evidence abounds that people are returning to prior work-related habits.
Looking back, it should have been easy to predict. In the heat of the pandemic, few, if any, stakeholders—investors, analysts, even board members—blamed the CEO or corporate leadership for the dramatic falloff in earnings. It was almost 14 percent in 2020, the highest drop since the financial recession of 2008. Given the scope of the human tragedy, and the magnitude of national lockdowns, both corporate boards and Wall Street took a forgiving attitude toward management despite the gloomy numbers. CEOs stopped even providing earnings forecasts ahead of quarterly results.
But as soon as the masks came off, that free pass ended. “In the pandemic, it was impossible to judge how firms were doing,” says Charles Elson, founding director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. “Everything was on an emergency basis.” Now, he says, scrutiny is back to normal. “And going back to a normalized world means returning to normalized accountability.”
For starters, that means layoffs and shake-ups at the very top of the leadership ladder. In the first 10 months of 2022, more than 1,000 CEOs left, in many cases not of their own volition. “Companies and boards were reluctant to make changes during the pandemic, but not anymore,” says Tanya van Biesen, a senior client partner in the Global Board and CEO Services practice at Korn Ferry in Canada. A sharp increase in activist campaigns that scrutinize leadership has added to the pressure this year. “CEOs are worried,” says Joe Griesedieck, vice chairman and managing director for Board and CEO Services at Korn Ferry.
But expectations have now moved beyond finances, just as they did toward the end of the last decade. Leaders must now quantify not just profits but other measures of employee well-being, such as progress in ESG. That means they have to be “caregivers, advocates, and coaches,” says Shanna Hocking, principal of consulting and training firm Hocking Leadership. Simply put, employee well-being has firmly landed in the laps of leaders, after many years of living in HR departments. “How happy, connected, and belonging do workers feel? These will be key metrics,” says Korn Ferry’s Warrell.
So will other key ESG issues. Many firms now tie executive bonuses to improvements in diversity or environmental practices. For instance, Deb Nunes, senior client partner in the Executive Development practice at Korn Ferry, says investors want granular details, such as the amount of emissions from how consumers use and discard products. This puts pressure on boards, which in turn push leaders for answers. “It’s the leaders’ problem now,” says Nunes.
It’s not yet clear how to lead in ways that boost these complex metrics. Right now, after decades of leaders choosing and articulating an organizational vision, there isn’t one clear path forward. The roller-coaster corporate landscape—will there be a recession? Is the labor market shifting? Will the stock market crash?—is creating a need for mentally flexible leaders. “They need to be in experimentation mode,” says Scott Dust, associate professor of management at the University of Cincinnati. “The having-all-the-answers, fake-it-till-you-make-it mindset of leaders is over.” Today, experts say, smart leaders admit when they don’t know, and continue asking questions until it’s time to make good decisions. Learning that balance is a process.
Showing Results, Everywhere
In 2022, occupancy picked up considerably starting in the fall, where the 10-city average
finally hit the 50% mark. Austin has been a leader in convincing workers back, and after lagging,
offices in New York began to fill up more when firms there instituted stiffer policies.
Global business travel spending in 2022 was expected to advance 34% over 2021 levels to $933 billion, recovering to 65% of prepandemic levels.
Global Business Travel Spend (Billions US $)
According to the Global Culture Report 2023, HR leaders have played a big role in rebuilding corporate culture.
Employee Sense of Purpose
Employee Sense of Opportunity
Employee Sense of Success
Employee Sense of Appreciation
Workers are slowly going back to longer vacations, but still checking in with the office about the same.
Taking a longer or shorter vacation?
How often will you check in with work?
Taking a longer or shorter vacation?
How often will you check in with work?
Multiple times a day: 37%
Once a day: 30%
A few times per week: 13%
Once a week: 3%
Multiple times a day: 37%
Once a day: 26%
A few times per week: 21%
Once a week: 8%
For a couple of years, it seemed like time-efficient videoconferencing was going to replace wasting mornings on coffee dates or flying across the country for a 30-minute meeting. Good riddance! But coffee dates and cross-country flights are back. Why?
Part of the answer is simple. When leaders (or anyone) feels pressure or stress, they will logically return to what they know. “They revert to the lowest common denominator,” says Shanna Hocking of Hocking Leadership. This is especially true of people who are decades into their careers (building new habits takes much more bandwidth and experimentation). But neuroscientists also say humans are naturally risk averse, and will always choose surefire gains over uncertain ones. This happens because the brain hogs calories, consuming roughly a fifth of the body’s caloric intake, and defaulting to the same pathways saves energy. “These habits are baked in,” says Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University’s School of Social Science, Policy and Evaluation.
Over time, experts say these habits can be changed, but transitioning takes a lot of practice, as well as the help of other professionals, who can more clearly see why, say, a flight to Minneapolis might not be essential for tomorrow. “This is where outsiders come in, such as executive coaches who can evaluate, which individuals are less likely to do themselves,” Zak says. How long does it take to make change? About three months, he estimates—with ongoing feedback.
Why We Go Retro:
The Short Version
Sources: Kastle Systems; Global Business Travel Association; Korn Ferry; O.C. Tanner Institute
Arianne Cohen and Peter Lauria contributed to this article.