Aug 18, 2019

Corporations may change, but big will never be beautiful

written by Lisa Eason

When I started working as a junior executive in 1983, there were set rituals and trappings that went with the role. You wore a suit and tie, you carried papers in a briefcase, you had a business card. You enjoyed a defined benefit pension and stayed with a firm for years while you were promoted up the ranks. You commuted in a company car to an office where you sat at a desk with a fixed-line phone, and you attended meetings for a living. There were secretaries; letters were dictated. There was a strict hierarchy. Bosses enjoyed expense accounts and executive dining rooms.

Almost all of this paraphernalia has been blown away. Formal attire is disappearing — casual dress is becoming the norm. Briefcases have largely vanished, to be replaced by rucksacks. I think rucksacks are awful but, apparently, they’re better for your back than traditional briefcases. I also retain a fondness for business cards, but they too are dying, replaced by a digital equivalent. And secretaries are almost extinct, as are most traditional perks.

For tycoons, the epitome of success used to be running a quoted business, or taking their company public, but the stock market is shrinking as regulation drives away entrepreneurs and capital.

The IPO market in London is the weakest it has been for decades. Going public is now the last choice when all options have failed. Reversing the slide in the popularity of public markets will need dramatic changes, but there are few on the horizon.

Equipment and habits that have been around for at least 50 years are being dumped faster than our retail landscape is being turned upside down. No doubt the clothing was superficial anyway. Perhaps even the meetings were, too.

In 2019, the executive cohort is much more diverse and woke. It is informally dressed and often works from home. Employees switch jobs much more frequently. Calls are via smart phones — if voice is used at all. Office romances are dying, fraught with career risks, to be superseded by online dating, it seems.

Business travel is being reinvented. The cost and hassle of driving or flying a great distance for a 20-minute sales pitch is not worth it. Finance departments are wondering about the returns from conferences, tradeshows, awaydays and similar junkets. Airport premier lounges are full of tourists now, while the management is doing more business via video to save money and time.

The entire model of high-priced first-class or business seats, which traditionally subsidised other flyers, is crumbling as companies question its value. Meanwhile, business travellers are switching away from swish city hotels and limousines and instead booking Airbnb and Uber themselves.

Organisations are struggling to satisfy their younger employees’ demands for job flexibility, improved work/life balance and opportunities to be creative. Unfortunately, disappointment lies ahead: if you want to do well in your career, you need to work exceptionally hard in the first 10 to 20 years. Short cuts happen only in films such as The Social Network.

Of course, millennials in their turn have adopted business ceremonies and fashions that are also likely to fade, just as their tattoos will. Expensive co-working spaces with free beer and giant slogans on the wall will surely look dated and inefficient in the years to come.

Today’s social media practices are likely to age badly. It will be fascinating to see if the strong desire among many in their twenties and thirties for their employer to have a powerful sense of purpose actually lasts. I admire their beliefs, but there are precious few enduring examples of companies that have combined worthy goals and consistent profitability.

The old structures are breaking down, although corporates are bigger than ever. While it appears as if the industrial establishment is being transformed, much is an illusion. The tendency towards gigantism and oligopolies is a malign trend that is common across most sectors and has been happening for many years.

The digital revolution was supposed to lead to atomisation and decentralisation. Instead, it has triggered sudden concentration of wealth and power among the tech giants. It is perhaps the worst aspect of globalisation, and I hope the monolithic corporations will eventually fragment, unleashing more innovation, choice and variety. That would be the best business metamorphosis of all.