Eliza Orleans

Eliza Orleans


Sara Miller-Paul

Sara Miller-Paul

Coaching Practice Manager

Agree or disagree?

  • A CEO can successfully work remotely from Europe while the company’s headquarters is in its original location in the Midwest.
  • A family business can grow record profits with a team including both in-person, “on the floor” staff and a leadership team that works remotely.
  • A rising NextGen based in Boston can be successfully mentored by a leader in Michigan.
  • Everyone knows now that hybrid meetings may have been an accident, but they are here to stay.

We tested these statements with our audience at the 2022 Family Firm Institute Conference in Boston last October, and the responses were understandably thoughtful and nuanced. In fact, we have noticed that in the time since then, what were considered provocative questions are now increasingly accepted as “normal!” In the Fourth Economy’s new and evolving workplace, work is now more dispersed—both full-time virtual and hybrid. In the context of the family enterprise, where so much of culture is identified with an original location, “place” is more than just the company’s physical location. It is concurrently entwined with an origin story— a family farm, a specific city or small town that offered support and labor, etc. In order to thrive in the Fourth Economy, family enterprises have been thinking beyond the “bricks and mortar” of their workplace including considering a different definition and perspective. We offer observations from our own consulting about the formerly taken-for-granted role of “place” in the overall views of a family business.

“Place of business” has always encompassed culture, identity, and values, though implicitly. As practitioners, we can and do encourage our clients to be deliberate in their decisions and consider the impacts of in-person work versus virtual on their business’s culture, identity, and values. In the Fourth Economy, we argue, companies, but family businesses in particular, need to explicitly emphasize their culture, identity, and values as central to their success, to cherish, and to counter an extension of working virtually that can be about convenience, not camaraderie.

With that said, making the case for in-person comes with challenges. Some of the issues we see clients grappling with include:

Place as a generational flashpoint

  • A G1 founder wants all employees to work in the office, but the G2 executives favor a flexible, hybrid-work setup. As a result, employees are confused about rules and expectations.

Place as an obstacle to progress

  • A sixth-generation family business wants to move its headquarters to a new state with a stronger talent pool, but the company is deeply entwined in the local economy of its origin city. As a result, long-standing stakeholder relationships are under stress.

Place as psychological real estate

  • A large G2 family-owned business has a large warehouse, prominently visible from the highway, in which the G1 founded the business 50 years ago. While the building itself no longer serves the needs of the company the family keeps avoiding the topic of seeking alternatives, despite the strategic upsides.

Conversations about “place” are often laced with assumptions and expectations that differ from generation to generation. Addressing these conflicts that could seem superficial requires making the implicit values of a family’s leaders explicit, and the role “place” plays in expressing those values.

We see our clients addressing the changing nature of “place” in a multitude of ways. If leaving a long-standing, historic building or piece of land is at question, you might consider creating a history wall in a new space, or a public, family business photo album to preserve the “psychological real estate.” Deciding what to do with the physical real estate can be an excellent project to engage NextGens as well.

If your family business has switched (semi) permanently to a hybrid model while still valuing in-person time together, and the business has a deep history of community engagement, perhaps it is important to continue the tradition and select in-person family and business activities explicitly based on these values—for example, volunteering with a local charity on a quarterly basis.

Success in the Fourth Economy necessitates being flexible enough to test new strategies and see what works. When making decisions about how to navigate these questions, leaders must intentionally pull from what has been important to their business’s culture, identity, and values in order to successfully propel their company into the future—a good practice both because of and in spite of location. In so doing, a foundation of “bricks and mortar” can be replaced by one of embodied by values and engagement.