How to Create a Culture Around Many Cultures

Remote work brings out a range of work styles. Rather than trying to make everybody stick to the same processes, leaders will have to find coherence in diversity.

If we’re lucky, one change the pandemic will bring to the workplace is the end of the idea of a monoculture. An association should have a shared set of values, of course. And it needs to agree on what its strategic goals are. But there’s plenty of room for people to address those things in their own way. You’re getting the right people on the bus, as the familiar line goes, not the same kind of people on the bus.

This awareness is a function of the way work has been disrupted and redistributed in the wake of COVID-19: More people working on different schedules from different places, as well as a greater awareness of the diversity of backgrounds and experiences people bring to work. Different organizations have adopted a range of approaches to these changes, but General Motors has adopted one of the most straightforward ones: In April, CEO Mary Barra said the company’s philosophy going forward would be “work appropriately.”

The one-size-fits-all approach fostered a culture of hiding.

That is, remote work and shifting roles when they make sense. This has plain practical benefits—savings on office costs, most obviously. And it’s a meaningful recruitment-and-retention tactic when a war for talent is going on. But there are cultural upsides to this too. MIT Sloan School of Management lecturer George Westerman recently wrote that older, more rigid management schemes tended to operate to the detriment of the organization, where people were afraid to speak up about the challenges they faced or the accommodations they needed.

“The one-size-fits-all approach fostered a culture of hiding,” he wrote. “People would take the flexibility they needed and hope they didn’t get caught. At best, the hiding was stressful. At worst, it could encourage a culture of dishonesty or disrespect.”

There are risks to this organizational looseness. In Harvard Business Review, scholar Stephen Bungay writes that a “no rules” culture, with flatter hierarchies and more accommodations, can lead to power struggles and processes constantly built on the fly. Cultivate positive rules for an organization, he advises, “which create internal predictability and simplicity that enables the group to deal with external uncertainty and complexity.”

Associations, like everyone else, are still working through this. A September survey of association leaders conducted by Achurch Consulting and Association Trends found that many struggle with “fewer opportunities for organic communication and relationships,” and that asynchronous work schedules leave some feeling like their work lives are subject to unproductive interruptions. Middle managers are supposed to keep everybody on task in a remote environment, but more need to be trained in how to communicate in that context.

So there’s still work to be done as far as figuring out what’s appropriate in that “work appropriately” mantra. Leaders can go a long way toward settling that by doing the kind of listening necessary to hear out employee concerns. (So long as it’s done authentically and doesn’t reflexively put people back in the boxes they used to be in.) But it’s clear that going back to old management styles won’t work. MIT’s Westerman noted that “going forward, it will be important to meet requirements for fairness and nondiscrimination while also recognizing the specific needs of each person.” That’s a tricky needle to thread, but will likely be increasingly essential for drawing in and keeping your best people.

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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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