Covid-19 Is Complicating Cultural Maintenance

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Dec 15, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

“Performance more often comes down to a cultural challenge, rather than simply a technical one.” 

That’s a quote from tech industry author Lara Hogan, and it isn’t just a nice-sounding platitude. Research shows that organizational culture indeed influences company performance in significant ways. Yet when you have a distributed workforce (as many companies now do), the unconscious nature of organizational culture must be made conscious to sustain it both during and after the pandemic.

It’s therefore important to look at the three components of organizational culture and how to be more deliberate and purposeful about each.

Virtual Cultural Artifacts

Artifacts are the objects created and used by human cultures that, when studied, reveal traits and qualities about those cultures. It works the same way with organizational artifacts. They are the most visible aspects of a company’s culture and, just as with archaeological artifacts, they say a lot about that company, whether this is intentional or not. 

When a company has a remote workforce, the digital platforms they use become like display cases for their organizational artifacts. Employees’ homes become the replacement or extension of the company’s physical workplace, and so employees’ artifacts become the company’s de facto artifacts. 

It’s therefore worth the effort to audit what artifacts your employees are consciously or unconsciously displaying. If people’s Zoom backgrounds are visibly messy, that’s going to convey something about your company, even if only subtly. This could be solved with something as simple as virtual backgrounds or some modest rearrangements of home office spaces. Some companies have even gone out of their way to provide employees with all of the accoutrements of a home office, from desks and chairs to computers and displays. 

But it doesn’t have to be that elaborate or expensive. You can also simply send out company-branded mugs or water bottles. Additionally, you can share a set of guidelines with your remote workers and grant them some leeway to individualize.

For example, if you decide that you want all employees to use virtual Zoom backgrounds showing the company logo, provide a set of designs to choose from. It’s best not to be overly strict or demanding with artifact guidelines unless you are also providing the resources people need to meet your specifications.

Espoused vs Enacted Values

Espoused values are the principles and ideas that a company publicly asserts. Enacted values are the true principles that a company actually practices through its actions and behavior. When espoused and enacted values align, this is called value congruence, the benefits of which range from greater employee commitment to higher staff productivity. 

Too often, though, companies pay lip service to certain values but do not live them out. And whereas this discrepancy has always existed, there’s a possibility of it becoming more pronounced with remote work teams. 

Communication is a critical element of organizational culture and often an espoused value. For instance, a company may claim to value everyone’s input, but it can be more challenging to do this in a virtual meeting.

More challenging, but not impossible. Managers and leaders who use various facilitative techniques, like asking more questions and creating time for people to contribute ideas, can encourage people to talk more than they might otherwise. 

A lot of the valuable communication that takes place in organizations is spontaneous and informal. Dropping into someone’s office or having a coffee and talking with no agenda is commonplace in the face-to-face workplace. This builds employee connections and has the advantage of creating unplanned and unexpected synergies. But managers’ open doors are harder to open virtually, so looking for ways to foster that informal communication is important. Zoom happy hours, for instance, have helped some organizations create informal communication opportunities. Likewise, managers’ Zoom office hours might be another way to encourage employees to drop in and chat. 

Companies don’t necessarily need to change their espoused values, but they need to be better at reinforcing them. Even during normal times, there is often not a high degree of awareness among employees about the espoused values of their organizations. Imagine how much lower this awareness can drop when exposure to organizational culture becomes limited to emails, texts messages, and Zoom meetings. 

One way that managers can remedy this is through more frequent articulation of espoused values using a variety of channels. Another way is through the visible display of their own value congruence and behavioral integrity — that is, showing that they are living their companies’ espoused values…which brings us to the final component of organizational culture. 

Underlying Assumptions

Underlying assumptions are the deepest layer of company culture. They somewhat overlap with values, but they are invisible, unspoken, unconscious, and taken-for-granted. If something is “just how it is” at a given company, that’s because of the underlying assumptions.

Both good and bad assumptions influence employee behavior in more powerful and fundamental ways than espoused values, and when there is a rift between espoused values and actual practice, the cause can often be found in the underlying (and unexamined) assumptions. 

Alignment between underlying assumptions and espoused values is key to strong, healthy organizational cultures. But underlying assumptions are not transmitted as well via remote work because there is not the physical proximity that makes social osmosis possible. The biggest losers here are new employees who must struggle to pick up on cultural assumptions without the benefit of such osmosis. 

As a result, managers need to be extra proactive in these uncertain times. Providing mentors or a buddy system so new employees can learn the unwritten ropes will make their onboarding much more effective.

In the distributed workplace, underlying assumptions that worked before may no longer work anymore. For example, even organizations that do not have formal start and stop times assume people will be at work somewhere between 8 or 9 in the morning and leave somewhere between 5 and 6 at night. In the WFH era, schedules are a lot looser. People may be sleeping until 11 a.m., for instance, because they are up working until 2 a.m.. Others may break midday to tend to family or children issues before going back to their remote office in the evening. 

Assuming that everyone is online ready to go at 9 a.m. is not practical or realistic. Leaders need to examine their pre-pandemic underlying assumptions, revising them if necessary, and then articulate them. Now, underlying assumptions by definition are usually not articulated so this will require leaders to be extra mindful and intentional: Pick meeting times that take into account the kinds of time demands working from home has created for employees. Give as much notice as possible. Be flexible. Poll people to find the best times for standing meetings. 

Remote work may offer numerous benefits in the age of Covid-19, but easy maintenance of organizational culture is not one of them. As we have seen, all three components of organizational culture rely heavily on the real-life presence of people in physical workplaces. Despite this challenge, companies can still sustain positive and productive cultures if leaders are extra thoughtful, deliberate, and, above all, communicative about the artifacts, values, and underlying assumptions that make up their company culture.      

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.