Preserving Your Organizational Culture From a Distance

Even if workers aren't in a physical space, they still want a sense of how an organization behaves. Leaders need to find ways to communicate it.

There’s a familiar line in the management world that one simple definition of an organization’s culture is “the way we do things around here.” At least it was simple when we all agreed on what “here” meant.

Offices have proven to be remarkably resilient this year in terms of getting used to Zoom conferences and remote strategy sessions. But the pandemic also has also put pressures on leaders to develop new ways to put their emotional intelligence to use and engage with workers. There’s some evidence that the task is taking a toll. Last week, Gallup reported that compared to May, in June U.S. employees felt substantively less prepared to do their jobs, and that their employers weren’t showing clear action plans in response to COVID-19, or demonstrating concern about employees’ well-being.

We know we can work over Zoom, now. Next, leaders need to clarify how best to do that work.

“The protracted, dynamic nature of the pandemic has left many feeling weary and longing for the finish line,” says the Gallup report. “But for the employees who look to leadership for communication and direction, COVID-19 challenges are still alive and well. Leaders must reinvigorate their efforts to ensure employees are well informed and prepared.”

Part of that effort can involve communicating to employees what your organization’s culture is, and seek out ways to put that into practice in a remote context. In a recent article for MIT Sloan Management Review, Cambridge Judge Business School Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville makes a point that reinforces Gallup’s findings—that the shift to remote work presents a threat to the culture that’s been established, which in turn risks eroding productivity and engagement. Now that we all know that we can work over Zoom, leaders need to clarify how best to do that work.

Howard-Grenville writes that part of that task should involve leaders reminding their workers of the kind of culture they’d established before remote work became the norm. “A manager might remind team members that they arrived at a certain approach because they are so skilled at drawing on multiple perspectives for input,” she writes. “Laying bare this aspect of the cultural tool kit not only reminds people of its existence but also signals its value.”

On the flip side, those same leaders need to call out cases where the organization isn’t following its established values, to “visibly censure practices that depart from the desired culture.” Remote work is no excuse for dispensing with the established pillars of your culture, though there are certainly opportunities to make adjustments. We’re all learning new ways to connect, communicate, address social issues, homeschool, and more in this environment, and leaders ought to welcome input about how to bring what everyone has learned to remote work. “We now understand organizational cultures to be much more open and interactive with their surrounding environments—responsive to expectations to be more socially and environmentally responsible, for example—and aligned with other aspects of employees’ experiences beyond the workplace.”

People like remote work, and they say they’ll want to hang onto it after the pandemic is over: A survey late last month from PricewaterhouseCoopers found that nearly three-quarters of office workers will want to work at home at least two days a week. But they don’t want to give up the kinds of things that offices provide: opportunities to network, and the sense that they’ve flicked the off-switch when work is done for the day. Many employers in the survey say they’re understanding: Roughly half say they’re providing more help managing workloads and building relationships. Wherever COVID-19 takes the office, more leaders will need to do that kind of soft-skills work to create the culture they want.

(erhui1979/DigitalVision Vectors)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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