By: Amrit Sandhar from The Engagement Coach
To understand the changes to our organisational cultures over the last 18 months, we must look not only at the implications of the exponential growth in working from home, but also compare the company cultures that existed before this growth and what has emerged. A company culture is defined partly by the way people within an organisation behave and interact with each other on a daily basis, and how these norms of behaviour are driven by a shared vision and purpose of why the work matters. It is this link between the strategy, purpose, behaviours and values that creates a strong identity or workplace culture. The challenge with the increase in remote working however, has been trying to achieve a sense of identity whilst no longer immersed in the corporate environment.
Workplace cultures have always been elusive and difficult to define. Whilst cultures may have been difficult to articulate, we have all experienced the behaviours they produced, helping us understand what was important to the organisation – and it hasn’t always aligned to what organisations stated in their values or corporate messaging. Senior leaders were able to walk around the building, getting a sense of the culture through observations of how people interacted with each other – the vibe from the café or restaurant area, or the interaction between people in shared workspaces. Whether toxic, or enhancing, every organisation had its own distinctive culture, either through design or evolution.
In 2021, it seems the world of work has changed forever, and according to the Microsoft future trends report 2021, 73% of employees want to retain the flexible working they have experienced during the pandemic. Deloitte recently announced that they would allow all their employees to permanently work from wherever they could, to do their best work. So, it seems for some, working in the office has become relegated to history, but what then might happen to those workplace cultures?
For those introverts, who hated going into the office and spending time with large groups of people, working from home could not have come soon enough. Similarly, those employees who hated their toxic work culture, where public appraisals may have been part and parcel of the daily routine, working from home has provided the ability to work in a psychologically safe space – our homes. For them, work could now be confined to a screen on a laptop – something we can close and walk away from, potentially reducing any emotional impact. Remote working has enabled many people to avoid the daily commute, and spend more time with their loved ones, enhancing their work/life balance. However, we are on the cusp of a new way of working and we will need to carefully study the long- term impact on wellbeing of working from home.
There are some concerns that we need to be mindful of as we move into this new world, which could have implications on our organisational cultures. As we increasingly work from home, we may create environments where siloed sub-cultures are formed for the ‘at home’ employees and those ‘in office’ employees, who experience work very differently.
So, which remote working employees might find this way of working more beneficial and therefore choose to work remotely? Possibly, these may be employees who are more introverted, parents who would welcome work flexibility, or maybe employees from different cultural/social backgrounds who struggled with their pre-pandemic organisational culture – the very groups we have often tried to target for a more inclusive culture. It’s also possible therefore that those employees who might not enjoy remote working to the same degree are colleagues who are more extroverted, who would much rather prefer working in the office alongside other people.
However, there may be a risk that for those working from home or remotely, ‘out of sight’ might mean ‘out of mind’. We might find that ‘not seen’ means some employees are also not heard, in favour of those who present themselves in the office and are more accessible to involvement –potentially those more extroverted. Home or remote workers may also miss out on information, and broader communication, and we know how knowledge is often power. With communication typically poor across many organisations, this way of working might only act to worsen the situation. Could there be significant long-term implications, as not being ‘visible’, may mean remote workers are overlooked in favour of those more ‘visible’ employees for promotions for example? With a recent UK government taskforce announcing they are considering making it a legal right for all employees to work from home permanently, these micro-cultures could become the new reality. It’s easy to see the potential repercussions on a company culture, as those more visible and extroverted employees could get promoted into senior positions, reinforcing a culture less welcoming to more introverted employees.
What employees experience of their culture is going to be dependant largely on the culture that existed in the organisation previously. For those organisations that already had a culture of autonomy, trust and flexibility in allowing remote working or flexible working for example, they will adapt better to the reality of more employees (if not all employees) now working from home, and this may be reflected in the way employees are treated. For organisations which already had a focus on outputs being more important than hours worked, their culture of autonomy and trust will continue to be reinforced.
Those organisations that mistrusted their employees and struggled to adapt to remote working, may feel the need to introduce policies and ways of ‘policing’ to ensure everyone is working their full contracted hours and ‘not slacking’. All this will do is reinforce the existing mistrusting culture which employees experienced at work. However, whilst the need to ‘police’ employees might be a concern for some organisations, a 2020 study showed that during lockdown people had sent more emails, attended more video meetings and worked longer hours, showing people can be trusted to work hard, and at times, even too hard.
For those employees who joined organisations in the middle of the pandemic, working remotely is all they have known – so what culture are they being exposed to when their only interaction has been with a small group of colleagues or a small team within their department? These small teams risk feeling removed and detached from a group identity, feeling remote from the organisation – literally and figuratively! When a culture has often been shaped through the behaviours being demonstrated in daily interactions, the culture of the company is harder to define, when all we may see of each other is a headshot on a video call.
Work has been resigned to largely communicating via emails and video calls. What differentiated one organisation from another – those haphazard interactions and random conversations in corridors have gone, leaving a void where the culture used to be visible. Think about the experiences of people working from home; they get up, get changed, have breakfast, then go into their designated place of work within their home, and get to work. No matter which organisation you work for, the chances are that the experiences of working from home, will be very similar, losing any connection to a group identity.
Some organisations have gone to great lengths to define the tonality with which they communicate, because how we communicate also defines the culture. This will now take on a whole new significance to pre-pandemic ways of working. With limitations in how we converse with each other, the words we use and the way in which we communicate, matters that much more. The nature of the emails – whether pleasant or not, the length, or the abruptness with which some might be written, the promptness with which people reply, the scheduling of video calls, how on-time participants are to join calls, and the efficiency with which these calls are run, may also help you better understand the culture across the organisation. Video calls across some organisations are straight to the point – focused on tasks, whereas for others, it’s necessary to say hello and catch up with each other, before getting down to business. Organisations have often been accused of being poor with internal communications, but when cultures will now be framed through the way they communicate, it will become more important to review how this takes place, as it may be a significant way of defining a group identity.
With regards to workplace cultures, the challenge is always going to be in creating teams which feel united and part of a collective whole, especially in an environment where more individuals are working remotely, increasing the risk of silo working – only exposed to their own small team of colleagues or immediate manager. Whilst on the face of it, it might seem like we have all been immersed in the same homogenous culture in our shared experiences of working from home, irrespective of which organisation we work for, there are subtle differences which we will experience, and this represents how our cultures have changed or enhanced what was already there. Unlike previously, company cultures cannot be allowed to evolve, they will require a focused effort to ensure those who prefer working from home or remotely, do not become excluded, have the same opportunities as those who choose to present themselves in the office, and leaders work to create a strong company identity, all teams can relate to.