With such a swift and large-scale exodus of white-collar workers from their offices to working remotely, it’s no surprise that some feel nostalgic for even the mundane facets of office life: the cubicle mazes, bad coffee, and watercooler conversation. What makes office life meaningful for many, though, is that it helps sustain organizational culture — the largely taken-for-granted beliefs and practices that underpin how people work together.
In a recent interview with people matters, Steve Reid, Founder of Culture Eats Strategy, a management consulting firm that helps organizations build exceptional cultures, brands, employee experiences, and people practices, and the former Chief People & Culture Officer, oOh! Media, shares his thoughts on the disruptions faced by organizational culture in light of COVID-19, including how, with the right leadership, you can continue to build social cohesion and trust in the company’s goals and values, whilst measuring and maintaining a performance culture.
Steve has been in the people and culture field for about 27 years now. He started with consulting, then steeped his career in learning and organization development. And then, about 16 years ago, he moved across to the more general HR side. He has led HR on a few different industries: telecommunications, banking, finance, and media as well.
Reflecting upon his experience on his last stint as the Chief People & Culture Officer, oOh! Media, Steve shares, “ I think that oOh! was a great opportunity to set up the people and culture team from basically nothing and grow the business. We grew organically, listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, did five acquisitions in four years, including a massive integration just pre-COVID as well.”
Here are some key excerpts from the conversation.
Q. Specifically in the Australian context, what kind of impact have organizations seen on the culture in the last one and a half years due to the disruption and uncertainty brought in by the COVID-19 pandemic?
I think the one thing to acknowledge is the level of uncertainty created for employees by COVID-19, not just at work but in their personal lives as well. It is a real game-changer in terms of disrupting our lives. The biggest role organisations can them play is in helping reduce uncertainty and make life easier in any way possible. I will say, one thing that was evident was that companies who did a lot of work on their culture pre-COVID were able to maintain their culture and relative performance much more easily than companies that didn't. In times of crisis, culture stands up and helps organizations survive.
If we look at the impact here in two ways. One is that there were companies in Australia that didn't react particularly well to COVID in terms of how they treated their employees. To the employees, it felt that they were just a number as the organization got rid of jobs, stood them down or reduced their hours without really a lot of consultation, which didn’t create a perception that they were valued. Then, a lot of those same companies took government assistance, and actually ended up having record profits or at least, a not so bad year. So the cutting in some ways seemed short-term financially focused and unnecessary. As a result, a lot of people lost any feelings of loyalty to their organizations.
The other impact on culture was that with people having to work from home during the lockdown period, it definitely changed the way that people interacted in the culture and how they felt about the organization. The organization had to respond to actually keep people connected, as well as keeping them safe. Keeping them connected was probably the most important thing we could do as a culture, as a business, and as people and culture teams. Organizations with strong cultures were able to quickly provide clarity on what the change in working practices meant for their employees during lockdowns as well as the ongoing practice of flexible working once we emerged from the longer lockdown periods. This really changed the nature of the role of leaders and managers in terms of how they needed to help drive and support culture and connection in the business.
Q. We know that it has been over a year since people are working remotely and have been dispersed. And there is no office as well. So, how does organization culture work for a dispersed workforce, when there is no office and when people are used to working together in the same building?
If you look at culture, it exists no matter where people work and you can either let the culture happen, or you can be very deliberate about it. In a dispersed workforce, things like connection become more difficult because it’s no longer easy to have the kind of informal chats and social interaction which you may have when you suddenly run into someone at the ‘water cooler’.
Connection is critical and it has to be more manufactured in terms of opportunities created for people to connect.
Early on in the lockdown, managers were implementing ideas such as virtual Friday drinks but something like that can get stale over time. So, you have to keep reinventing the things you do as a team and as leaders to stay connected. When there is an opportunity to have people face to face, those opportunities need to be maximized to make sure a connection exists, particularly cross-functionally. We’ve found last year that within their own teams, employees were naturally collaborative when working virtually. But cross-functional collaboration drops away unless there were particular work meetings or projects which required that. It’s important to encourage that wider cross-functional collaboration, be it through virtual events such as trivia events where people from different teams can join or prioritising the time that you do have in the office to make sure that you are walking floors or talking to people from other teams that you wouldn't normally get the chance to do.
Q. We often hear about how leadership is integral to building company culture. So, how do you get managers to build that cohesive company culture?
One of the things you can't underestimate is that, when you have someone in the office, it's easier to build culture, it's easier to understand how they're doing. In the virtual world, it is much harder to get a read on how people are going from a mental well-being point of view. It's very easy for a team member to be on a one hour zoom call and be upbeat and interact, and then straight after it feel like their world is collapsing. You can't get a very good read on that as a leader in a virtual workspace unless you are prioritizing asking the question proactively.
So, one of the first things leaders need to do is show that they care, and ensure that when they're talking to their teams, they're not just talking about the functional, work stuff, but also about how their people are doing and initiating that connection. People will share a lot if they feel that their manager genuinely cares about them as a person. So, for me, part of the culture, and the connection building is really that genuine aspect of a manager caring about the experience people are having.
Q. In a hybrid world of work, many leaders will now need to “show up” differently when they are interacting with some employees face-to-face and others virtually–by defining and embracing new behaviors. What will be some of the imperatives of leadership to maintain the company culture and promote social cohesion and trust-building in their teams?
Trust is built when you trust people. One of the first things leaders must do is to trust that if people are at home, that they're still working, they're still committed, they're still doing what they need to do, and still delivering what they need to deliver. And you've got to work from that position unless you're seeing something completely opposite to that. This was a bit of an eye-opener for a lot of leaders who weren’t as open to flexible working. But they quickly realized that people would still work and be committed and that in itself speaks a lot about the culture. People put in the effort because they want to see the organization succeed as much as anybody because that's in their best interests.
The other thing is for the leaders to ensure that they’re giving people what they need and supporting them in what they need to be productive. There’s two parts to that. One is personal productivity, we have found that people can be very personally productive working from home as a result of less distraction and social interaction in spite of family responsibilities. As a leader, it’s important to recognize that people need opportunities to be interpersonally productive as well. This is the second part. How do we make sure that people are getting the chance to contribute ideas and learn from others? How do we make sure teams can still access that shared learning? In our organization, we do virtual brown bag sessions where people talk about their experiences or things they’ve learned. Finding those opportunities are important.
I think once an employee knows that you trust them to do their best work, and that you actually provide the right kind of environment, tools and opportunities for them to learn and grow at the same time, the trust is returned.
Q6. For our final question, given the massive upheaval in the way we work– how we work, from where we work, how can one measure whether they have maintained or enhanced their organization’s performance culture?
I think if you don't know how you measure an organization's performance prior to being dispersed, then you probably won't know how to measure it when you are dispersed as a workforce. The measures should remain the same although the way in which they get delivered might be slightly different. At the end of the day, if people are working on certain projects or have work to deliver, the measure of delivery should be the same as it always was.
While organizations should still be able to measure individual performance and deliverables, measuring organizational performance can become more difficult. I don’t mean just the financial results, I think it’s important for organizations to also take into account performance that is not simply individual-based but more team-based or consider how you measure cross-functional network performance. This is the underlying performance that contributes to a financial result. But how you measure this can vary greatly across organisations or different parts of organisations. Also, it’s important to ensure that if you are measuring (and therefore expecting) it, you are also providing the opportunities and enablement that allows people to still display this performance.
Now some companies are mandating that people come back to work in the office five days a week, as they are realizing that their company performance is suffering because of that lack of interaction. However, if they know the key things the company must deliver on and how they can help employees deliver them, people can still be highly productive in a hybrid model. Culture, in the form of our daily practices and behaviours, symbols and processes, plays a critical role in this. As a simple example, if there are four or five people in a meeting room in the office, and a couple of people dialing in virtually, which actually is a pretty normal situation that has just been magnified during COVID, we have to ensure that we minimize the disparity between the live and virtual experience. Certain rules and practices that may help include raising your hand when you want to speak – virtually or in the room, having only one person speaking and not speaking over each other, calling it out when you are not following these rules and proactively engaging people on the screen for their input. We must be considered in our approach and look for things we can do to ensure that people feel connected, included and that they can contribute, wherever they are, whatever way they're working.