Organisational culture is the shared way of working, it is the ‘how we do things around here’. Some elements of the culture can be explicitly expressed in the organisation’s vision and values, behaviour frameworks, processes, and procedures.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg and is unlikely to have changed materially during lockdown.
Many of the ways that an organisation’s culture comes to life are through its employees’ shared experiences. It is the language used, the stories shared, how meetings are conducted, the social networks, the non-verbal cues that show when you have been successful or unsuccessful.
The cultural disconnect…
The extended periods of remote working experienced by so many people during the lockdowns will have inevitably reduced their connection to their organisation’s culture. While technology has provided ways for people to continue to work together, it is limited in its ability to develop social capital or provide those random, informal cues that keep a culture blooming.
People working remotely have effectively been developing their own culture and ways of working. Things will be done slightly differently at home than would have been in the shared working environment. Ad-hoc and non-verbal reinforcement is more likely to have come from other members in the same household than from a colleague socialised in the same organisational culture.
Suppose people had high levels of social capital and organisational engagement going into lockdown. In that case, they may well have maintained a culture that is more aligned to the organisational ‘original’.
For those with a weak connection to the organisation where they work, the move away from the pre-covid culture may be more significant.
The situation will be even more pronounced for employees recruited during the Covid restrictions. In many cases, there will have been little, if any, opportunity to be socialised in the ‘ways of working’ . They would not have had the chance to interact as humans do with one another with their colleagues in the real world meaning their understanding of how people work has been dictated by what they can take from a computer screen.
The full impact that the extended period of remote working has had on culture will only really be known when people return to a shared environment. they will bring with them their different experiences, their various levels of social capital and their version of the ‘way we do things’.’
Going back to the office: re-establishing cultural norms
With this reduction in social capital and the development of individual variations on the culture and ways of working, it is easy to see that there will be a period of readjustment when people return.
In some cases, the changes to the way people have been working will be seen as more engaging or effective. These should be recognised and embedded across the business – an example is the more relaxed approach to meetings where the invitation into people’s home life has changed the dynamics of relationships. Equally, there may be cases where the ways people behaved while working remotely will have evolved in a way that does not align with the required culture. In either situation, leaders will need to make time for ways of working and relationships to be re-established.
As leaders bring people back from remote working, there will be many ways to approach hybrid working. Many organisations have publicly spoken about how many days staff can work remotely, or what they will do about their real estate. There has been less in the media about the impact these new ways of working will have on the organisation’s culture, and how they plan to realign it.
The return to a shared working environment allows leaders to pro-actively review the organisation’s culture and design a future state that builds on the best of what was there before the lockdowns AND includes the best of how things have been since last March.
For example, anecdotally, communication has been more inclusive, and this has increased the engagement of people who have traditionally been less connected to the organisation.
What can leaders do?
So, what can leaders do to support returning employees and mitigate the impact of lockdown on the organisation’s culture?
They should expect to resolve low level conflicts that will impact productivity and decision making as people adjust to having to work in a wider arena than they have become used to. In the last year, people have had more control over who has been involved in their decision-making, allowing them to selectively involve people who share similar views. This comfortable ‘echo chamber’ will be opened as part of the move back to working in a shared location.
Leaders could also work on rebuilding social capital. It is generally considered to be made up of four areas, and by focusing on these areas, leaders can reduce the time needed to re-establish a shared understanding of the culture and ways of working.
- Social networks – anecdotally, teams have been increasing their communication to ensure that they remain connected but contact across teams has reduced. However, in a shared working environment, the walls of a group are more porous. These unplanned social interactions provide invaluable ad-hoc support and reinforce ‘how we do things around here’.
Leaders will need to give people time to re-engage with the values and norms of the organisation, similar to the socialisation that happens when someone joins an organisation. One way to achieve this would be by running re-onboarding sessions to allow people to reconnect with their colleagues and share their lockdown stories to rebuild their social networks.
- Trust and reciprocity – while a lot of organisational trust will be developed through the delivery of work commitments, there is also an important social side. It is the way we treat personal information that has been shared with us by colleagues and the small things that we do for each other on a day-to-day basis, such as the offer of coffee or sharing cakes on a birthday.
While some of these activities have been replicated online, their more structured nature inevitably reduces the more authentic in-person interactions that lead to trust and reciprocity.
- Norms and values – the shared behaviours that develop and reinforce an organisation’s cultural norms and values will have been weakened by the extended periods people have spent away from their colleagues. While the verbal reinforcers can be delivered through video calls and meetings, the non-verbal cues are more difficult to pick up remotely. Leaders can support the reconnection of the organisation’s values by discussing how their team members have been working from home and renegotiating how they will work together.
- Organisational engagement – many leaders have spent additional time during lockdown communicating the purpose and objectives of the organisation. Ad-hoc conversations between colleagues have been reduced, as have the general exchanges that underpin a person’s understanding of what is happening in the organisation. Even with an effective feedback mechanism, the amount of information that needed to be transmitted during lockdown has increased broadcast-type events. Leaders can recognise this need to re-immerse themselves in the ways of the organisation and allow time for people to make these connections.
Walk the walk
As well as providing an environment where people can rebuild their social capital, leaders also have an essential role in modelling the behaviours and language that support the desired culture for effective hybrid working.
Leaders should call out and sanction against things that run against the culture. For example, hybrid working will require an adult-based culture where people are more empowered and trusted. Leaders who help set the objectives for teams then leave the team to decide how to deliver them will be supporting the hybrid approach. They will need to resist the temptations to ‘take back control’ when the opportunity arises in the joint working space.
What will be key to ensure a smooth transition to hybrid working is for leaders and team members to take time to:
- Learn what has worked well during lockdown and what hasn’t
- Integrate the benefits into the ways of working
- Proactively review and modify the required culture to support hybrid working
- Allow conversations about the experience of lockdown
- Renegotiate the expectations between teams and individuals and the way they will work together
A final thought is that while there is a lot that leaders can do, they are unlikely to get it right first time…
It will be key to monitor how the culture is developing, learn quickly and make changes before any new unhelpful cultural factors are embedded and become ‘the way we do things around here.