A Post-Corporate Culture World

(Originally posted on the Swash Labs blog)

When I started Swash Labs, I tried to make it the company I’d always wanted to work at. Not everyone could work whenever or wherever they wanted for a number of reasons, mostly concerning the nature of collaborative work on client projects. Even so, I tried hard to minimize the corporatized aspects of running a company. I didn’t micromanage. I didn’t sweat people along the way. I treated everyone like adults and assumed they would respond in kind. They did.

The office has always been a big expense, in every form it has taken for us. Small agencies are notoriously difficult to scale and they always operate on a slim margin. Our experience has been no different, so office space is always a gamble. I talked myself into living with the overhead by framing it as an ad buy. If people come into our cool office and see that we have a real space, they’ll know we’re legit. They’ll listen to us. It will help bolster our credibility.

And who knows? Maybe it did. Maybe it made people feel more comfortable with paying us to think and work and live inside of projects that were largely ethereal until they weren’t. I know what we sell is hard to buy. I know it is difficult to understand. Even Coke has the same doubts and arguments with McCann and Droga that our clients sometimes have with us. It is, as they say, the price of doing business.

But corporate culture – from the panopticon to the silly power dynamics, from the weird shame spirals to professional guilt / work heroism headtrips – none of it has ever been settled for me. I don’t say this to judge or to criticize anyone for whom it works; I know it does for some people and in some situations. I’m just not built for it.

So, my lived experience since the pandemic began has been a mixed bag. I feel like my ears have been ringing for 60 days. My dreams, when I can sleep, are supremely weird. My brain feels like soup after more than a few hours in a row of concerted effort. But even with all of that, the work has felt fine. It feels good. The team has come together and we’ve been able to support one another both professionally and personally. I’m so proud of what we’ve done, and thankful that we’ve been able to stick together and keep working.

However, this experience has only reinforced my feelings about some of the more performative elements of corporate culture, if only because a global pandemic has proven the case against. Not every job can be done outside of a traditional office environment, but many of them can be, and so I think they should. The work involved in those jobs can be performed capably from anywhere in the world, without strictly regimented day-to-day timing, and what’s more, they can be done with a real sensitivity and empathy for what everyone is going through.

Living a human life is beautiful and traumatic. If we’re lucky, we get an even share of each. The last two months have proven to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can look out for each other while still doing the work.

And if many of us can work from anywhere (and we don’t suffer as a result, and neither does the work) then let’s be real: How much of what we suspected to be bullshit about corporate culture is now, undeniably, exposed as bullshit?

The inescapable answer is: most of it. Enormous portions of what many of us grew up being taught about what’s necessary for business or professional success is built on lies and oppression and was never true. We only had to act like it was true in order to play the game.

This story is supposed to be about how I live now, and what’s changed about my life since the pandemic began, and what I like about it, and what I don’t like about it. The truth is that what I don’t like about it is external: everything outside of this house. I don’t like how we’ve been largely abandoned by our government to figure this stuff out on our own. I don’t like how legitimately scary everything is.

My kid hasn’t seen another kid in real life in months. I don’t like how so many people outside my house don’t take this seriously, or how caring for others is taken as a sign of weakness. The behavior of many companies – including really big ones, with enough resources to do it right, with tons of employees and what should amount to a burden of real responsibility – has been despicable.

What I like surprises me. This terrible situation has brought into sharp relief what’s good about what we’ve been building together at Swash Labs all these years. We’re doing good work for good clients — work that matters and makes a difference in people’s lives, and work that helps companies survive in an extremely weird time. We’re doing that work in support of and in celebration of each other.

We’re careful with each other, and that matters to me.

We’re able to truly focus our work down to what really matters.

We have no plans to return to the office any time soon. Out of this whole rotten deal, I think that’s the thing I like most, and it is something we probably should have done anyways.

Josh Berthume

Josh Berthume

Josh is a simple tyrannosaur.
Denton, TX