Over the next several weeks and months, businesses of all sorts will begin to open. Many of the articles now in circulation have to do with challenging the notion of whether office work will ever be the same as it was just 2 months ago. But whether you decide to let everyone work from home forever or to start “migrating” people back into a more physically-structured environment, there’s one question that every leader must pay attention to: how will your culture change in this post-pandemic world? This is critical because no matter how good your post-pandemic strategy is, your culture will far more define and enable your success. That’s right; culture trumps strategy any day.
Some companies had a very productive culture, and some had even built a culture around a remote and distributed work environment. Others were struggling to define their culture, and still others had a horrible culture, work locations notwithstanding. In a previous post, I had written about leaders in this shelter-in-place environment and the need to reassess one’s effectiveness before, during, and after. And a corollary to this notion is the need to assess your organization’s culture before, during, and after – even if it was great or fairly good beforehand. Don’t assume that everything will stay the same – it won’t.
But what really defines a culture? To answer this question, we look to the world of social psychology. Noted social psychologist, Serge Moscovici, for instance, identified culture as a social construct. In other words, culture is built and sustained when people are together and interact with one another. This is why the quality of one’s remote and virtual leadership during the pandemic was and is so important. In a world where everyone is isolated, creating a healthy virtual social environment in the digital world has been a challenge for some and easier for others. Culture is comprised of social elements such as language, practices, beliefs, traditions, norms, values, and celebrations. Leaders who are aware, observant, adaptive, and others-focused have made the most of their organization’s collective isolation and have kept a productive intact. Tools such as Zoom, Facetime, Go-to-Meeting, and Microsoft Meeting have been used to try to simulate the face-to-face world by giving participants access to more cognitive cues than are available with the good ol’ conference call. You’ll perhaps remember my last couple of posts about how the mind makes up whatever cognitive cues are missing in a communication exchange.
By necessity, in almost every case, the culture of the organization was challenged as new operating and interaction principles, new practices, new norms, and new traditions were put in place for teams and groups within companies. As a result of these new ways of conducting business, some of the things that were norms or usual business practices were sacrificed in order to maintain the organization’s core values, and the culture was changed or even diminished almost overnight. What had been a norm of being in the office at 8 am every morning was changed to being on a Zoom call by 8 am. Norms of responding to email only certain hours of the day were changed to being on email 10 hours a day. A “work-hard – play hard” environment became “work hard – work hard”, as the business day came to have no limits – especially for organizations spread across multiple time zones. Values of teamwork and collaboration were challenged as it became more difficult to build trust in a virtual work environment. Even language changed as nouns morphed into verbs (“I have been Zooming all day!”; “I’m home-schooled out for today!”). In many ways, company culture has shifted and many are asking the question: “Will it ever be the same again?” The short answer is “not likely”. But that doesn’t mean it has to be less or worse than it was before.
The companies that come out of this pandemic most productively are the ones who purposefully and intentionally evaluate their culture before and during the pandemic, and then map out their revised culture for the post-pandemic world. Start by listing all of the elements as I outlined earlier, and then briefly describe each one in their “before” and “during” state. Further, get some feedback from employees as to their perceptions of these elements, to ensure an accurate organizational view for each. Nothing could hurt your new culture more than a leader’s inaccurate assessment of what was really going on. Once you’ve completed describing your “before” and “during” pandemic culture, take time to assess the new realities of operating your business in a post-pandemic world. Answer the questions of: Who? What? When? Where? Why? Ensure that you have a thorough understanding of each of these relative to your core values, employees, work processes, and customers. Then take the assessment of your organization’s cultural elements and map them into the new operating environment. Which elements (before or during) will best serve your employees, customers, and core values in the new normal? Which elements will never return to their “before” status and is it necessary or possible to compensate for this in one of the other elements?
When assessing cultural changes and answering the five questions on behalf of your employees, ensure that you have a thorough understanding of employee engagement and how it will be diminished or enhanced by your new operating practices. We know from prior research that employees who are fully-engaged in their work roles are more than twice as productive as those who are only partially-engaged or disengaged. In a post-pandemic world, it’s highly likely that you’ll not know whether someone is disengaged until it is too late, so the better to focus on the things that drive engagement. Employees want to attach themselves to a sense of mission and something that is meaningful to them. They want to be able to have a voice in the outcomes of a project or work effort. They want psychological safety and trust, and they want a sense of ownership for a project or work product. Interestingly, if anyone of these elements is missing, engagement is diminished and with it, productivity. For a more in-depth discussion on these, see my post on employee engagement from January, 2019.
Finally, as you begin to steer your organization into the new post-pandemic world and all of the changes that come with it, be sure to communicate often with your employees. Acknowledge the things that have changed. Be willing to admit that some things can never go back to the way they were (at least not for the foreseeable future). Identify the behaviors that are expected and the ones that are not acceptable or tolerated (behaviors that are tolerated will define a culture far more than a list of expected behaviors). Don’t expect that everyone will just “get it”, and certainly don’t let anyone in your organization be surprised by a new culture and new set of expectations. Your ability to be transparent – even vulnerable - to be honest enough to face the new realities, and communicate these thoroughly will determine how well your organization comes out of this quarantined world. And by all means, don’t try to fake it until you figure it out. Your employees likely have already figured it out or are creating their own version of what's going on, and they’re just waiting to see if you’re in touch with their reality.
Now is the time to define your new culture, communicate it, and steer toward it. For more on culture assessments, reach out to Dr. Felix at email@example.com, or through LinkedIn at Mike Felix, PhD.