When the pandemic hit the United States in early March, businesses had to pivot overnight to remote work and changed operations. While some companies halted or declined in their business, others were brought to the frontlines to provide essential services while completely rethinking their processes to meet rising demand. Employees were sent spiraling as they juggled working from home, children learning remotely and changing responsibilities in the workplace.
These sudden changes gave leadership little to no time to consider what company culture would look like remotely. As a result, some companies abandoned their well-developed culture models entirely to simply manage the day-to-day and focus on keeping business alive. These reactions were understandable and sometimes necessary to accommodate business fluctuations.
However, as companies slowly begin integrating these changes more permanently, it’s time to consider how to evolve strategy and culture while continuing to adjust to unpredictable changes.
Understanding Your Organizational Culture
Culture doesn’t go away with crisis, turmoil or change; it becomes more visible. Organizations with an existing emphasis on technology were primed for video conferencing and work management tools outside a physical office. Companies that value flexibility were prepared for employees to balance their time between work and parenting duties.
Culture is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all. Organizations must establish a set of values and strategic vision that partners with cultural elements to achieve desired outcomes. In our present environment, the most important thing leaders can do is take an honest look at what is working and what isn’t. Here’s how:
1. Assess your organizational and leadership values.
Gallup data shows that only 27% of employees strongly agree that they believe in their company’s culture and only 23% strongly agree they can apply their organization’s values to their work. When employees don’t align their work with the company’s values, culture suffers. As a result, you stop moving forward with your strategies.
In some cases, remote work exacerbated pain points in company culture. If your company valued productivity by knowing your employees were present 9-5, then remote work is creating a challenge. Reassessing how to measure productivity becomes a critical cultural change.
Similarly, an organization might tout work-life balance as a core value, then emphasize the need for a rigid 9-5 workday to maintain a structure at home. When adjusting to remote work, it is important that companies align their values and their practices.
2. Reassess your strategic plan and key initiatives.
Many businesses quickly tossed out their 2020 strategic plans around the end of first quarter when the changing environment made their plans irrelevant. Their mistake, however, was not replacing or revising the strategy despite the complex and uncertain times. Without a solid direction, even if it changes, culture has nothing to align with moving forward. Consciously exploring and discussing the changes anticipated in your industry and developing new strategic vision allows employees to see their place in the new future.
3. Observe your cultural artifacts.
Artifacts are the distinct and visible aspects of a culture. These might include office layout, dress code, meeting structures and basic customer practices. If a company artifact included exercise trails on campus that employees were encouraged to use for well-being, that specific artifact went away with remote work. However, the core value of health should remain, and the company might encourage wellness breaks or walking meetings from home as a way to continue to support that value.
4. Formally assess where you are and where you want to be.
Culture shifts require deliberation and planning. An organization’s culture is deep-seated and necessitates intentional effort to change. In some respects, the pandemic offered a sense of urgency that shifted strategy and culture quickly. Leaders should ask themselves what changes from the pandemic they want to embrace, and what aspects of the previous culture should be preserved.
What Companies Can Do to Reestablish Culture
Remember that culture was never lost. The question is whether your culture, pre-pandemic or post, is the one that will support success going forward. Here are some steps to consider as you begin to adjust culture.
- Look to Leadership
If you want to shape and evolve your culture, you must have strong leadership. In America, 75% of employees report that their direct line manager is the worst part of their job, and 65% would happily take a pay cut if they could replace their boss with someone better. Leaders must define desirable behaviors, model them and hold all employees accountable to support culture development.
- Manage Your Talent Effectively
Talent will likely need to shift as a result of the pandemic. Many companies will need to consider various workforce changes including whether they contract their workforce, reallocate staff as products/services change or manage skills and competencies in new ways. This might involve shifting roles and job descriptions to allow for more flexibility or assessing whether your employees need to build different skill sets to be successful.
- Assess Your Processes and Structure
Lastly, organizations need to determine if processes and structures require adjustment. In remote working environments, communication becomes critical to keep people connected to company purpose, to each other and to the details of their role expectations. In some cultures, for instance, leaders might need to increase meetings and hold virtual sessions more frequently. For other cultures, they might implement a weekly message from the CEO to keep team members informed.
To ensure success, organizations must determine the most effective culture to support their needs and determine how to manage that culture effectively. As the business environment becomes more complex, understanding how your culture supports change is imperative. Equally important is knowing how to change your culture in a meaningful way to drive desirable outcomes in an evolving world.