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How the pandemic can change workplace culture for the better

By James Thomas

Article

The Covid-19 pandemic has had tremendous and swift effects on workplace culture. The global lockdown and travel bans have upended assumptions about the nature of work and corporate interactions. People have discovered that they don’t have to be in an office, that they can get most things done remotely. They do not need to commute to work. Others have gone from jet-set to home-bound with little effect on their business. As they adjust to operating during a pandemic and prepare for the recovery, organizational leaders need to consider which culture changes they want to retain and which they must counteract.

The rapidity of these changes is a problem. Organizational culture is defined by the collective norms of behavior exhibited by the individuals within an organization. Generally, workplace culture does not change very much or very fast. Rather it adjusts slowly, over a long period of time in response to an accumulation of multiple small encouragements and the occasional epiphany. This year, however, organizations globally have abandoned their fundamental working premise, “how things get done around here,” sometimes in a matter of days.

“People find meaning in their daily rituals of getting ready to leave home, commuting, grabbing their cup of coffee, and filling their water bottle before sitting at their desk.”

Take the accelerated adoption of digital tools, which can give the misleading impression that a physical presence in the office is unnecessary. Certainly most professional jobs can be done remotely. Modern collaborative technologies—videoconferencing, screen-sharing, digital shared file storage, simultaneous multi-authoring of documents, digital whiteboards, smartphone chat groups—are freely available and sophisticated. Organizations have dropped the dogma that “it’s just better to do it face-to-face.”

Except that face-to-face still matters because it creates rapport and trust. When you are with a person you can build a relationship and read their non-verbal cues. Just being there shows that you made the effort to come. Similarly, people find meaning in their daily rituals of getting ready to leave home, commuting, grabbing their cup of coffee, and filling their water bottle before sitting at their desk. So while it is a trap to just show your face at the office, and a mistake for management to think it knows what is happening because it can see you there, being present can demonstrate commitment by workforce and leadership alike.

These sudden changes can prompt leaders to replace the implicit messages sent in an office with explicit direction communicated remotely. Leaders can set more context and provide more guidance at the beginning of a task or project. These leaders may need more frequent check-ins to see how they can support their people in moving forward. Most of all, leaders can build trust. They can give their people the space to take ownership of their jobs and allow them to complete their work how they think is best. Overly close management within an office can be counterproductive. Remotely it may not even be possible. Now is the time for empowerment.

Similarly, while remote working may seem cheap, it can come with hidden costs to your culture. For many people the lockdown has meant social isolation, a harm many have endured in silence. There’s a reason why solitary confinement is used as a punishment in prisons. Leaders can respond by engaging with their teams and use collaborative technologies to maintain social contact. Before the pandemic “mental health awareness” was sometimes a slogan. Now it is a necessity.

Leaders can also communicate the importance of discipline and boundaries. People working wholly alone tend to become less productive over time, although they may work longer hours than they did in the office. They lose their frame of reference and task orientation. The boundaries between working and not-working become eroded. Home workers do not receive signals about when to switch off, which office workers do when they walk out of their office building at the end of the working day. Leaders can therefore communicate that there is a time for work and a time for play, and they can model this in their own conduct.

“Finding the good elements of the sudden culture change, taking pride in them, can reinforce these shifts in behavior for the long-term.”

As the pandemic eases and the recovery starts, leaders can also assess how their culture responded. People behave differently in a crisis. Sometimes this is positive, like when a group has a steely determination and a “can do” attitude. Other times helplessness and panic take over, paralyzing action. The purpose of this appraisal is not judgement. It is to prevent the easy relapse into old, and sometimes bad habits, and to preserve new-found trust, empowerment, and collaboration. Finding the good elements of the sudden culture change, taking pride in them, can reinforce these shifts in behavior for the long-term.

Culture change is difficult but rewarding. When it is thrust on you, as it has been on all of us in recent months, it can feel sudden and overwhelming. With reflection and deliberation, however, organizational leaders can extract much that is positive from what we have all been through these past months.

About the author

James Thomas is a partner with Strategy& Middle East, part of the PwC network. Thomas is the Middle East lead of the Katzenbach Center at Strategy&, a global think tank focused on the topics of culture, behavior, leadership and change.

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James Thomas

James Thomas

Partner, Strategy& Middle East

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