Designing a Post-Pandemic Culture
Organizational culture will never be what it was before the pandemic. Too many things in and about the workplace have changed. For instance, you can’t undo what people have learned about working from home. You can’t take away their experiences. You can’t remove the deeper relationships they formed with their families, or the sense of relaxation they acquired from a 30-foot commute, instead of a 30-minute or 30-mile one. That means that your employees will be looking for ways to preserve the benefits they had while working at home even when offices are allowed to open as normal.
Of course, there will be some who will want to go back to the office, but it still won’t be the same, not least because some will still work from home. And even in those cases where everyone comes back to the office, or factory, or warehouse, the culture will have changed. It’ll be different than it was.
As always, the post-pandemic culture will be a by-product of the new post-pandemic workplace. That means that you have an exceedingly rare opportunity to design both.
Organisational culture always forms as a result of the collective attitudes in the workplace, and almost without exception that means that cultural change is slow because it takes time for the alterations you make to influence the existing mores.
On this occasion, however, the changes in the workplace itself - sudden and extended, work-from-home - has meant that the culture of work in your organisation has already changed, though it’s still very much in a state of flux. That’s because no one really knows when, or how, it will end.
Not only that, but there’s nothing to suggest than when the pandemic dust settles that the disruption in industries, never mind the workplace, will stop. In all probability, it’ll continue. And so that places you in a unique position to design what the post-pandemic culture in your organisation will look like, and that’s because you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design the new workplace. The last time there was a change of this magnitude in organisations was during the Horizontal Revolution of the 1980s, when middle management essentially vaporised.
All that will be wasted if you try to go back to what you once had.
The new workplace, no matter how you design it, will be a hybrid between the old “everyone in the office” to some combination of those who are there, and those who are at home.
You will have seen that many employees were able to get all of their work done in less time by working from home, than by coming into the office. Notwithstanding the fact that they didn’t have to commute, they experienced fewer interruptions and longer periods of productivity. The result was that your organisation was able to respond more quickly to customer demands, and rapid innovation made your enterprise more resilient to further changes.
At the same time, however, innovations that came from chance encounters in the hallways or around the coffee machine stopped occurring. Despite the technology that’s now available, such encounters don’t occur online. The only time you “bump into someone” is if you both happen to be in the same virtual room simultaneously. And unless you’re sure that no one else will join you, the kinds of conversations that would lead to innovation like that never begin. That’s because they tend to be somewhat confidential - something that can’t be guaranteed in cyberspace unless it’s prescribed in advance. It’s the serendipitous nature of these conversations offline that lead to breakthroughs, however, and thus far it has been impossible to replicate that spontaneity online.
Organisational culture, however, depends on togetherness. Meeting together online isn’t the same thing as meeting in the same room, even if the same people are present for both. There’s an atmosphere - a connection - that occurs when people are together that is lost online. Those who have been forced to watch streamed church services, for instance, have particularly noticed this. Doing so has made them a spectator, rather than a participant.
Meetings are shorter now than they used to be because they have a purpose, and people turn up on time. Rather than everyone drifting into a conference room when it suits them, they have to show up for an online call. In many cases, the moderator has to admit them, which means that they can’t come in unnoticed.
Virtual meetings, however, have lost their intimacy. No doubt you have wished that you could have a coffee with someone after a virtual meeting. Why? Because it’s easier to have a “quiet word” face to face, than it is to shout into your computer’s microphone so that you’ll be heard. And that added closeness makes more of the meeting than you could ever expect to get online.
And virtual meetings, whether it’s with one other person or a dozen or more, lose their subtleties: the aroma of perfume, the smiles, the nodding of heads, etc. These things are all lost in a virtual meeting. Another difference is that only one person can speak at a time. If more than that try it, you can’t hear anyone. Some may view that as a good thing, but it goes to show how impersonal online meetings actually are.
Hybridised meetings, however, are known to be divisive. That’s because those who meet together in a room are seen to have a kind of exclusivity that those who can only meet virtually do not have. You need to be careful of the perceptions that this has on others.
One way to minimise the sense that those who are there remotely are not somehow less important is to ask them specifically for their ideas. You will have seen remote interviews conducted like this. The person in the studio becomes less important to the viewer than the person who is being interviewed, even if that person is at home. By shifting the emphasis, the person in a remote location feels and is seen to be important.
Onboarding new people is one thing which suffers especially online. If ever there was a time when employees needed to feel that they were part of the organisation, then this would be it; yet, in a virtual setting, they feel disconnected - something that you want to avoid, in particular, at this time.
What will you do? What will you do differently? What will you keep, and what will you discard? The hybrid workplace is yours to design.
You could start by separating the activities that are done best face-to-face from the ones that work better online. As you’ve discovered, online has its advantages, but just like all organisational designs, one-size does not fit all. This is your chance to objectively consider which works best and where.
Personal mentoring and coaching
The loss of intimacy in personal mentoring and coaching is important. These things happen spontaneously when you and your subordinates are on the shop floor, so to speak. A comment here or there. A tweak in what one is doing. All things that are easily done in person, but impossible virtually.
Although serendipitous meetings are rarely possible online, meeting with people daily or more frequently than that can approximate it. One way to do it would be to use a Zoom-room in which you, as the manager, were always present. You could have a kind of virtual open door policy, but let only one person into the room at a time. In this way, people could “drop by” and “run something past you” if they wished. Privacy would be maintained because you would only allow people in who you wanted to see, and you could control how many are there are any one time.
This would be a comparatively easy way to monitor performance. If you wanted to know how someone was getting on with their work, you’d simply message them to join you in your virtual room for a quick chat. Of course, you’d have to explain to people that this is what you were going to do so that they wouldn’t feel that you were going to micro-manage them, but it would keep them on their toes as it were, knowing that they would have to account for their activities on a moment’s notice.
The real problem that comes with online work, however, is the difficulty in developing relationships. There’s only so far that you can take them.
Online dating is a perfect example. It’s one thing to meet someone online and even chat with them for hours; but there’s no comparison to meeting them in person. Any married couple will tell you that there’s no substitute for being together.
Pencil-pals predated online dating. The most famous instance perhaps of pencil pals who did meet, albeit a bit late, was that told in the story of 84 Charing Cross Road, in which a close friendship between a reader and those who ran a London book shop developed over many years.
The point is that whether it’s by letter or online, it’s never a substitute for meeting in person. As the relationship grows, so does the desire to get together.
The organisational culture that comes out of the pandemic will be the result of the relationships that form during it. It’s likely that old ones will be weakened, and new ones formed. When people do get back to the office - whatever that looks like - people will hang out with some who are different from the ones they spent time with beforehand, which means that networks and connections will have changed.
Working together again
And what of the people who do return to the office? What will that be like?
Will they all be masked up? And if so, then how will that interfere with serendipitous encounters that occurred before the pandemic?
Will people be willing to stand closer to one another, or will they be so afraid of each other that anything less than two metres will feel like a threat, or indeed an assault on their privacy?
Some people will struggle with this more than others. If you fail to address it, to talk people through it, to explain how this could work, then the post-pandemic culture will be different, and probably worse, than what you envisioned.
You must remember that workers don’t know what things will look like either, nor do they know how it should look. They’re as unsure as you are; perhaps more so.
You must take the lead and show them what to do. Don’t tell them. Show them. Set the example, and tell them that that’s what you’re doing, and then practise it every day. People will need to relearn what it means to work together, and you are their teacher.
It’s been suggested that you just step back and let the post-pandemic culture evolve on its own.
That’s a mistake.
If there was ever the need for leadership, it’s now. And that’s because so much has been disrupted that people simply don’t know where to turn. Many of them are too terrified to do anything. They are rabbits in the headlights of pandemic change.
If the workplace was “normal,” then standing back would be the natural thing to do because people would know how to behave, what was acceptable, and what was expected.
But no one knows that.
No one knows what to expect. They’ve had their hopes dashed a multitude of times in the past year or so. They live a life, whether it’s at home or at work, of trepidation.
Laissez-faire is for times when things are predictable, and right now they’re far from it.
If you want the post-pandemic culture in your organisation to develop in a particular way, then you have to design the hybridised workplace that will lead to it.
Chaos never evolves into order. Instead, you have to create the order that you want, and then lead people into it.
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