In Times Like These, Mind Your Culture

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Apr 22, 2020

The last few weeks have caused upheaval in businesses all over the world.  With the spread of COVID-19, for those who are fortunate to still have jobs, it is likely that how work gets done has changed dramatically.  There have been many good articles written recently about how to work remotely from home and how to maintain connections with colleagues and customers.  This is not one of those articles.  This is a reminder to organizational leaders to “mind your culture.”

Trains in London have a recording that sounds when the train pulls into a station.  As the doors open for those entering or exiting the train, the recording is a warning to “mind the gap.” Don’t hurt yourself by stepping in the gap between the train and the platform.  Likewise, organizational leaders need to “mind” the cultures of their organizations to avoid letting them go unattended, particularly in these challenging times.

There have been many books written that offer different definitions of organizational culture, how to discern it, shape it, and manage it.  For our purposes, “organizational culture” is defined as “the way we do things around here.”  It is an overly simplistic definition, but it embodies the way work gets done, an organization’s business process and systems, and its accepted leadership styles.

Probably the most comprehensive business continuity plans of the most thoughtful organizations never anticipated that the world’s workforce would have to change work environments and work remotely from home all at once with no notice.  For those who are accustomed to going into an office where there is a support infrastructure, how they do things, and where they do things has changed significantly.

A manifestation of an organization’s culture can be found in its business processes and systems.  The design of those processes and systems can send strong messages about an organization’s desired culture.  For example, in a professional services firm, if the policy of the firm is that professionals input their hours worked on a daily basis into the firm’s timekeeping system by the beginning of the next business day and that policy is rigorously enforced by firm leadership, it sends a message that capturing time daily is important to the firm.  But, in this new environment, if secure remote access to the timekeeping system is sporadic and time entry needs to be staggered and can only occur once per week, the business goal of prompt time entry has not changed, but the business process is now misaligned with that goal in such a way that it cannot be accomplished in the manner originally designed.  In this case, the organization’s culture is now changing.

Another manifestation of an organization’s culture is its accepted leadership styles.  For example, organizations that encourage leaders to manage by walking around and meeting with staff members one-on-one will have to adjust to maybe calling around to best replicate their preferred management style.  Alternatively, those leaders may choose to hold team meetings once per week on Zoom.  It won’t be as personal of an interaction, but it will be more efficient and may result in keeping team members more connected with one another and with the organization.  This change in leadership style would be the consequence of exterior influences not contemplated by the leaders.  That said, their willingness to adapt and change would be a sign of their development as leaders.  It would also be an indication that the organization’s culture is changing.

As organizations grow, shrink, enter new markets, change leadership, or deal with an unexpected situation like the current pandemic, organizational cultures will likely change.  With that change will come challenges and opportunities.

The timekeeping example, set forth above, presents a challenge.  For financial planning and resource allocation reasons, it is very important for the organization’s employees to record the time they work in the timekeeping system on a daily basis.  However, the system cannot ensure remote access on a daily basis, so the new requirement is weekly.  Recognizing this process, the change will drive new behaviors by employees. The organization changes the current timekeeping process to weekly for at least the period of time employees will be required to work remotely.  The organization communicates to the employees that the change is required because of system limitations, but the prompt recording of time every week is very important and will be monitored.  When the current situation is over and employees are able to return to the office, the decision will need to be made whether to return to daily time input, and that decision should be communicated to the employees along with an explanation as to why.

The leadership example, set forth above, presents an opportunity.  The leaders may be most comfortable leading by walking around, but that is not a leadership style that is conducive to the current emergency situation.  By adapting and bringing their staff together using technology such as Zoom, not only will information flow and decisions be made, but the opportunity to nurture their teams can have many benefits.  These co-workers spent a significant amount of time with one another before being told to work from home.  All of a sudden, that interaction stopped.  It will be very difficult for the leaders to return to solely managing by walking around when everyone returns to their places of work.  These teams are going through a shared ordeal, which gives them a connection they did not have before.  Hopefully, that will prove positive when they physically return to work.

During these uncertain times, organizational leaders are facing unprecedented challenges.  So many factors impacting their business are out of their control.  Some businesses will likely not survive.  Those that currently continue to operate are likely doing so in a very different manner than they did before.  They are having to adopt temporary processes to accommodate employees and customers who are having to work from home.  Leaders have to adapt to lead a remote workforce as well as deal with their own personal situations.  One thing for certain is when everyone returns to work, there will be plenty of stories of challenges faced, successes achieved, and opportunities presented.

When some sense of normalcy is returned, organizational leaders need to check in on the culture of their organizations.  Examine the way things were done before the pandemic and during the pandemic.  Then determine the optimal way things should be done going forward.  This presents leaders with a great opportunity.  An organization’s culture can be changed by the stories that are told.  Articulation of examples of resiliency, innovation, perseverance, teamwork, and empathy can be used as a basis for developing a culture that is encouraging to the workforce.  Likewise, learning from failures, omissions, mistakes, and miscalculations is also necessary.

It is highly likely that organizations will not be able to return to business as usual when this pandemic has passed and stay at home orders expire.  The shared experience of the workforce is such that their relationship with their employers has changed.  How they work changed.  For some, new remote work skills were established. For others, their personal connection to their organizations may be diminished.  In other words, organizational culture will have changed.  Leaders need to recognize that and be thoughtful about shaping the culture for the future.  If leaders ignore that culture change, it will be extraordinarily difficult to shape it in the future.  Leaders need to mind their culture.

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