What Is Workplace Culture? Why Does It Matter?
As HQ became more digitized, operating through software and data, a cultural gap has opened with field operations. HQ managers use data and collaborate with other departments. In the field, managers and tradesmen own the jobsite and how work gets done. The field sees digital data as a threat to their power and autonomy.
Construction firms often write descriptions of their company culture in glowing terms about customer care, execution excellence, etc. But reality often differs from good intentions, particularly between jobsite and headquarters. This internal cultural conflict must be resolved to improve efficiency, productivity and make digital transformation a reality. There can be no win-win between HQ and field operations without a common culture.
A good definition of workplace culture: Culture is what guides workplace behavior when there’s no explicit direction from above. Workplace culture, for most people, is more their emotions at work than logic and rules. If we think of a company as a person, then its culture is its personality. Workers experience company culture by seeing how work is performed and by whom. Also by seeing how decisions are made, how employees treat each other and their customers, etc. Each department of a company can and will have its own culture too.
Cultural change is difficult because it has little to do with logic or good business decisions, and much to do with personal identity, emotion, economic class and politics. What management techniques drive cultural change? Kumbaya or My Way or the Highway?
Here’s Some Useless ChatGPT Suggestions on Culture Change
“Overall, managers have a significant impact on workplace culture, and by taking intentional steps to shape and change it, they can create a positive and productive work environment.
- Lead by example
- Communicate clearly
- Foster collaboration
- Recognize and reward desired behaviors
- Address negative behaviors
- Invest in employee development”
There’s nothing in this recommendation list specific to culture. If you’re competent leader, you’ll take these actions no matter what needs changing. Deep AI is best suited to finding what is generally known and expressing it in grammatical sentences. But don’t expect breakthroughs.
HQ Office Culture vs Field Culture
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, HQ and Field Operations in most firms have evolved different cultures. They broadly match the stereotypes of “white collar” vs “blue collar”, managers vs union members, “book learning” vs “real world experience”, etc. Not everything I say here is true of every construction firm, but stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason, and they do affect people.
- HQ departments are now staffed by office workers, often college educated digital natives who perform their work using desktop computers and a number of software applications. Field operation personnel are largely trade professionals with less formal education and who perform their work using tools.
- HQ departments perform their work by manipulating and transforming data of many types. Field operations manipulates materials in physical space.
- HQ risk occurs when making mistakes with data or communications, which affects their career opportunities. Jobsite operations experiences risk to worker bodies all the time.
- HQ personnel can gain knowledge and experience by reading, viewing and talking about software and data. Jobsite learning is largely experiential, gained over years of performing similar tasks with familiar tools and materials — apprentice, journeyman, master.
- HQ personnel endure change with their digital tools all the time. Jobsite personnel do not change their methods and tools nearly as often, especially when union rules apply.
- HQ personnel are much more diverse in gender and race than the field, which is white male dominated.
- HQ competence and expertise is less related to time on the job, but on logical and interpersonal abilities. Trade competence is directly related to time working a trade, especially with union workers.
Business Success vs Personal Success
HQ culture is attuned to business success. The presence of bosses and their moods is always there. When business is going well, or badly, the mood is always apparent. Compensation for managers is often related to the firm’s profitability.
Field culture is more divorced from the firm’s success. Trade personnel want to be paid well and fairly for their work, but are less concerned with a firm’s business success. Rather, the focus is on the building itself as it grows and evolves.
Union representation makes the divide starker. Managerial opposition to unions is not just about rising costs, but because unions embody the culture divide in law. Independent gig worker have a similar effect, but gig culture probably exists somewhere between union and non-union.
The HQ/Field divide doesn’t exist only on the job, but continues after work in their choices of neighborhood, leisure activities, demographics, health and politics. There’s no getting around the characteristics of white male culture and its sexist, racist, violent tendencies and increased risk taking. And politics, because today, politics is much more about culture than money.
What Industries Can Be A Model for Construction Digital Transformation?
As white male workers retire, the pressure to hire broadly is irresistible. There are certainly other industries who must deal with these same issues. Who should we copy and adopt as a model for creating a unified digital culture?
One possibility is our military. They have for decades absorbed Blacks, women, gays and people of all races. On the job, everyone must rally around “the mission”. If the mission requires digital modern weaponry, so be it. Cultural baggage or preferences don’t matter. Veterans are over-represented in construction as well.
But you cannot opt-out of a military command. And the consequences for breaking the rules of the game are severe. More severe than in civilian life based on individual choice, as in the USA.
Another possibility is professional athletics. Athletic firms rally around the team and its culture. Winning is the mission for the firm and the workers. If winning requires digital methods — think “moneyball” — then everybody falls in line. Unlike in the military, the consequences of disobedience isn’t the brig, And the industry has managed to be both financially successful, inclusive, and incorporate unions.
Our model could be automotive manufacturing. Construction has much to learn from “Lean” manufacturing to reduce waste, be more efficient, safer and deliver higher quality.
But perhaps the model probably doesn’t matter more than the fact of success. The largest construction firms, such as Bechtel, my first employer, have an engineering culture based on meritocracy, expertise and proven success. Yes, construction culture has inbuilt conflicts, and is dominated by small, family owned firms. But models of success are not hard to find.
Changing the Culture vs Some People Never Change
Let’s face it: Some people will never change. And it’s true that as people age, they are less likely to adapt willingly. And if they actively resist a cultural change, well, that’s a problem you must solve quickly.
I’ve been told by people in the industry to not bother talking to managers over fifty because they don’t want to change personally, even if they except the logic of digital methods. Kind of insulting to the middle-aged, but probably true. Most of the bull-shit rejections of digital do occur with older managers who just don’t want to change how they do their job. If they won’t listen, or give you one of the long list of BS objections, get help from executives to override any such veto.
The fact is, many employees unwilling to change will have to go, even if they occupy a key role and provide critical experience. For those that are mission critical, keeping their expertise might mean a transition to a consulting role. Turning them into a subcontractor keeps their expertise, feeds their ego and compensation, and reduces resistance to digital solutions.