Career and Jobs

How To Leverage Return To Work Choices To Deliberately Evolve Your Culture

Many are still wrestling with return-to-work choices. Who should return? When? How often? For how long each week or each day? Some view those choices as discrete and tactical. They’re not. Environment, including who is working from where independently or interdependently, is a core component of culture and inextricably linked to behaviors, relationships, attitudes and values. Returning to work choices give leadership a rare opportunity to rethink and redirect their cultural evolution.

On the one hand, you can’t dictate culture. It exists and evolves on its own, made up of the collective characters of all the individuals in your organization. As each one changes, so does the culture – bit by bit and step by step. On the other hand, you can influence its evolution and doing that is an essential role of leadership as culture is the only sustainable advantage any organization has.

Some define culture as “The way we do things here.” Others take more thorough and complex approaches. BRAVE is a middle way, simple enough to be generally usable and robust enough to guide choices across behaviors, relationships, attitudes, values, environment.

Different sub-definitions of BRAVE may be appropriate for different organizations. Here’s one set to use as a starting point:


  • Decisions: Hierarchical, controlled, set vs. Diffused, debated, evolving
  • Activities: Deliberate, prepared, rule-abiding vs. Intuitive, inventive, exploratory
  • Discipline: Stable, structured, predictable vs. Flexible and fluid


  • Authority: Results-focused, directive, dominant vs. Purpose-driven, encouraging, caring
  • Unit: Independent individuals or groups vs. One interdependent team
  • Communication: Formal, written, impersonal vs. Informal, verbal, personal


  • Strategy: Driving minimum viable product at lowest possible cost vs. Innovating to create more value for customers at premium price
  • Posture: Responsive to requests, stated wants vs. Proactively anticipating future needs
  • Manner: Reliable, steady small steps vs. Big leaps


  • Purpose: Doing good for ourselves or things we’re good at vs. Doing good for others (Happiness)
  • Learning: Directed, task-driven, rigid vs. Open, growth-oriented, flexible
  • Risk Profile: Protect what have now vs. Risking more to gain more


  • Physical: Remote, walled, formal vs. Present, open, casual
  • Impetus for Change: A change in our ambitions, capabilities, mindset vs. A change in external conditions, hurdles
  • Growth Enablers: Scientific, technical, mechanical vs. Artistic, intuitive, societal

Just as the remote versus present return to work is not binary – different individuals may be remote or present at different times – all these dimensions are ranges.

The choices are interrelated. It’s going to be far more effective for those working more interdependently to be physically present in the same place, personally debating and exploring ideas and encouraging each other. Conversely, those working more independently may be able to make task-driven, steady small steps and communicate formally from anywhere.

Two things CEOs should never delegate are vision and culture. Delegating the organization’s overall choice about where to work is delegating a critical cultural component. Don’t do it. You may do it for sub-teams and sub-cultures, but not for the overall organization.

How to steps

  1. Ground everything in the core essence of the organization. The cultures of design, production, delivery and service organizations need to be fundamentally different. Be clear on which you are and use that as a starting point for your cultural choices.
  2. Build general agreement on your current culture by mapping the dimensions above or more specifically appropriate dimensions on a 1 – 5 range. Getting this vaguely right is good enough for this exercise.
  3. Build general agreement on how things should evolve to move towards your ideal culture, grounded in the core essence of the organization.
  4. Select the very few dimensions (as in one to three) you choose to evolve first.
  5. Develop, implement, track and adjust plans to influence those evolutions – including return to work choices.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #796) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.

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