White-Walter_INFORMAL_White_Walter_2_Print_062515socialcapital "Companies routinely invest heavily in fundamental employee development programs, but it’s not hard to see how teaching teamwork through a group community activity could be much more effective than a classroom exercise," says Walter White. Photo: Allianz Insurance

As companies contemplate the long-term implications of the widespread virtualization of office work initiated by the pandemic, there has been much debate about whether desirable cultural attributes like collaboration, innovation, and resilience will diminish as physical gatherings become less frequent. The water cooler, it seems, has suddenly become a totem of a healthy company culture. Concurrent with the rise of virtualization, more companies are taking strident public positions on social issues and expanding their definition of key stakeholders to include more than equity shareholders. One such stakeholder is the community in which a company operates and from which it draws employees, so it’s fair to ask whether a decline in community engagement will be an unintended but unfortunate consequence of virtualization as the connection between a company’s physical location and the primary workplace of its employees loosens. I believe companies would be well-served to proactively avoid this outcome, as community engagement is another cultural attribute critical to continuous company success.

To better understand why this is the case, it’s instructive to contemplate the reasons that companies have taken more definitive and visible positions on social issues and community priorities, particularly in an era when the power of shareholders is high. As several companies have discovered, taking such positions can draw backlash, so the reasons for doing so must be compelling. Here are several to consider:

1. Community engagement instills purpose, and a strong sense of purpose drives performance. As Gary Hamel wrote, “A noble purpose inspires sacrifice, stimulates innovation, and encourages perseverance.” In other words, a sense of purpose is a prerequisite for several of the key cultural attributes companies are now scrambling to preserve. Most companies understand this and take great care to position the purpose of their core business in a favorable way, particularly with customers. However, such efforts are significantly enhanced for employees when the scope of company purpose is expanded to encompass priorities of the communities in which they live and work.

In addition, the skills and values inherent in community engagement -- teamwork, problem-solving, communication -- are readily applicable in the workplace. Companies routinely invest heavily in fundamental employee development programs, but it’s not hard to see how teaching teamwork through a group community activity could be much more effective than a classroom exercise. Employees can also hone specialized technical skills and learn advanced leadership concepts, so, even independent of customer perceptions, companies that deliberately support their communities gain strength.

2. Some social and community issues are too overwhelming to ignore. Although our country is closely and bitterly divided along political lines such that virtually all issues have a political dimension, some issues have become so pervasive that they have overcome the natural reluctance of many companies to take a position on a priority outside their core operations that could be characterized as politically partisan. Climate change and racial disparities are examples of such overarching social and community issues. They are not without controversy, but the relevance for almost all companies is not in question, which opens the door to direct engagement.

3. A strong employer value proposition is essential. Long before the “Great Resignation,” successful companies recognized the need to win the war for talent by appealing to a broader range of employee backgrounds and interests, and to remain an employer of choice in an era of sweeping demographic and attitudinal change. Some of this need can be addressed through the conventional levers of compensation and benefits, but other aspects relate to accommodating the values and priorities of distinct employee segments. The same discipline companies have traditionally used to appeal to unique customer cohorts applies to employees, and employee resource groups are based on that principle. With the advent of employee resource groups, some social and community issues naturally become more prominent, such as LGBTQ+ rights or equitable treatment for those with a disability.

Highlighting distinct groups of employees when teamwork is so essential to the success of most companies does bring some risk of friction and dysfunction. Integrating community engagement within the focus of employee groups, and the sense of common purpose it instills, can be the unifying element. In other words, the groups are formed to recognize and celebrate differences but also focus on shared commitments.

4. Companies provide a uniquely productive forum. Whether political divisiveness in the United States is at an all-time high is a question best left to historians, but, given the explosion of social media, we have clearly gained an unprecedented number of tools with which to express that divisiveness. Ironically, the largely unregulated and democratic nature of social media, so essential to fulfilling its original purpose of connecting strangers, virtually ensures that it will devolve into derisive factions.

An example of such inevitable but unintended consequences is a prominent social networking service designed to foster highly localized connections among neighbors in a community. Although many conversations on the service are innocuous inquiries about preferred local businesses, others veer quickly into a politically partisan briar patch and reveal that the proximity of our homes is in no way correlated with the proximity of our views. If the neighborhood were ever an appropriate venue to discuss community and social issues, it is no longer, and the same can be said about church, school, and clubs.

Against this backdrop, companies (and particularly larger companies) offer an increasingly rare opportunity for employees to pose questions and express opinions on potentially controversial topics in a productive way. Even when such opinions are sharply divided, employees are naturally unified by a common company purpose and are bound by company values and codes of conduct to demonstrate respect for the views of others. These elements inspire constructive conversations that can lead to new insights for the participants.

And what do companies gain by providing such a forum? Candid discussions about social and community issues strengthen a sense of belonging for all involved, forge new employee relationships helpful to future collaboration, cultivate beneficial skills like learning agility and critical thinking, and may uncover new opportunities for company improvement and growth. 

If companies gain by encouraging employee engagement with the community and by fostering open conversations about social issues in the workplace, how can companies preserve these benefits as remote and hybrid work blur the definitions of the workplace and the community? As we all have discovered about multiple personal and professional challenges during the pandemic, the path to an answer begins with being intentional about such preservation, and not allowing community engagement to dwindle as a foregone consequence of new work styles. The answer may require some redefinition of community priorities to be more independent of geography, and it will definitely benefit from the creative use of technology to facilitate new types of community activity and new forums for interactive discussions.

Big companies are often derided, at least by some academics and politicians, for being singularly focused on growth and financial returns versus some broader definition of the social good. In many ways, however, this self-serving focus is why the engagement of companies in community priorities and social issues is so valuable, as it ensures that such engagement will persist once the benefits to the company are clear. The key is to capitalize on opportunities to align interests, whether by strengthening a sense of purpose among employees, attracting the best talent as an employer of choice, or developing critical new skills. These opportunities abound and should be cultivated and not ignored as we plan for the new world of work in the months ahead.

Walter White is the recently retired CEO of Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America.