In March 2020, when South Africans started working from home, few of us imagined that we would still be doing so 5 months later. Like most, I prepared for an initial 3 week stretch and, while I knew that it might be wishful thinking (given what was happening in Europe at the time), I hoped to be back in the office by the end of April. Looking back, I can only chuckle at my naivete.
Five months in, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally shifted the way we work.
In our new reality, those of us who are fortunate to be employed are mostly working a hybrid of in-office and at-home work that we’ve started calling ‘blended’ working. Some are still working full time from home very productively and may never return to the ‘office’, except for meetings.
Work, as we know it, has changed, perhaps forever.
While this new reality has shown us that we can adapt and thrive on many levels, it also presents a challenge to the corporate cultures that we’ve spent so much time building and that we use to attract potential employees to our companies.
Culture is the character and personality of your company. It's what makes your business unique and is the sum of its values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, attitudes and, most importantly, behaviours. It’s an important competitive differentiator. And, it has a big impact on morale and productivity and, in a crisis, can either see your company through or lead to its demise.
Culture is built through shared experiences, beliefs and values. It grows when people spend time together in person. So, what happens to it when we don’t meet ‘around the water cooler’ much anymore?
As leaders, I believe that COVID-19 has presented us with a unique opportunity to shape, cement and leverage our company cultures for greater impact.
I believe that it’s still possible to manage culture ‘by design’ (and not ‘by default’) even if we don’t meet in-person regularly. By finding new ways to engage, we can nurture (or create) strategically aligned, strong and adaptable cultures that will see us through this difficult time.
It’s hard, but it’s not impossible.
How do we manage culture ‘by design’ when our teams are working remotely?
Hire the Right Talent
This should be our lodestar - and not just something that we consider in times of crisis.
Hire resilient, adaptable people who work smart, use ingenuity to navigate uncertainty and embrace (and leverage) difference. In uncertain times, we need people who ‘can keep their heads’ and forge ahead to find solutions.
Nurture Your People
Engaged employees are your company’s greatest assets, as their passion, commitment and discretionary effort drive business success, growth and culture – whether they are working in-office or remotely.
Stay attuned to your team’s ‘temperature’. Connect regularly so that you can identify those who need support but go easy on supervision and evaluation. Instead, focus on mentorship, goals and opportunities for development – and trust them to get the job done.
Culture is defined and shaped by behaviour, so continue to encourage, cultivate and highlight behaviour that demonstrates the beliefs and values that you want to reinforce. Hold people accountable for behaviour that doesn’t.
Lead from the front. Leaders significantly influence culture, particularly in times of stress. When the future is uncertain, leaders become the ‘single source of truth’. Educate and develop the leaders in your company so that they manage by objective, show empathy and build trust. Hold regular online conversations with your leaders to add value and connect in a meaningful way. This is fundamental if you want to hold onto your engaged employees (crisis or not).
Articulate, validate and reinforce your culture. The more your talk about your culture, the more you bring what you value into the open, making it more visible and making your employees more conscious of what is acceptable or unacceptable. Culture is ultimately defined by behavior, so make sure that you reinforce behaviour that supports a positive culture. Clarity about culture and expectations is more important when people can’t gather as they did before.
Try to replicate and replace in-office interactions with easy-to-use virtual substitutes. Set up video conferences on Skype, Zoom or MS Teams to replace team meetings. Use the chat function on MS Teams for the team talk that would normally take place over coffee or at the water cooler.
Try to foster a sense of normality and familiarity online – it goes a long way towards assuring your people that the company’s culture hasn’t been eroded.
Find Creative Ways to Maintain ‘Esprit de Corps’
Sharing personal experiences – through team building, over coffee or through office parties – shapes culture. Find creative ways to get your team together online. Team Zoom quizzes, virtual Friday night drinks and online games can break the ice, build rapport and help with the isolation that some team members may be feeling.
Whether you started Lockdown with a strong, clearly defined and adaptable culture that has supported and sustained you and your team over the past 5 months or are struggling to overcome managing culture ‘by default’, there is still a lot that you can do shape, cement and leverage a culture that works for your new reality. It’s all about managing behaviour or, as Michael Kouly believes ‘the culture of a company is the sum of the behaviours of all of its people’.
May you find your sweet spot!