Our workplace cultures, defined by the norms of how people conducted themselves, the way they interacted with each other, what employees across the organisation collectively believed in, and all of this shaped by the environment they worked in, has disappeared overnight. Whilst the buildings haven’t gone anywhere, the current extreme situation has forced a way of working that has challenged the conventional workplace culture; those values plastered on walls and doors of now empty buildings seem superficial as the world deals with a threat that has brought a whole new meaning to the phrase authentic leadership. The movement of #clapforourcarers has focused our attention to the people that really make a difference to our world: the medical teams, the shop workers, and the delivery drivers across the country. Our examples of great leaders are those people who have gone out of their way to help and support others, because they really care, irrespective of the risk or impact to them. In a world where our very existence is being challenged, how can leaders make work feel like something important, that can add value to the lives of others? Before we begin to explore what leaders can do, we need to understand why focusing on workplace culture matters now more than ever.
Positive Culture Matters
Every organisation’s culture defines why work matters, how people identify as a group, how work gets done, and the things that are important and valued. Alignment is important, as misalignment in how people work and what’s important to them, could cause internal conflict, impact on creativity, innovation and productivity. Culture joins the dots between organisational strategy, the purpose/ mission, the values, and supportive behaviours, to create a strong group identity. This feeds into how passionately the collective apply themselves – to the discretionary effort they bring to their work. A strong culture helps people understand what the organisation stands for and cares about, ensuring decisions are made for the greater good, and can help in attracting talented, like-minded people. A strongly aligned positive culture also helps talent retention, as few would leave a culture where they felt their talents were valued and appreciated, and were able to work with care, compassion and respect for one another. The implications are therefore clear, strong, aligned workplace cultures, that act as catalysts for the delivery of organisational objectives.
Having a clear purpose/ mission, combined with succinct values, might indicate a strong workplace culture but this is where many organisations go wrong. Defining organisational values and the behaviours that demonstrate these, doesn’t mean they are being demonstrated, as they may be aspirational to help create the culture the organisation needs, to achieve future strategic objectives. Often, organisations go to great lengths to define their values and behaviours but forget to put in place mechanisms to hold others to account when demonstrating behaviours misaligned to the values, or where present, the mechanisms themselves are not applied with consistency. Conversely, values can also be over demonstrated, and if left unchecked, can cause as many problems as not having them at all.
Another challenge is the lack of identity across organisations, where people feel little sense of ‘one-ness’ across teams. A clear sense of purpose can galvanise everyone to work to a common goal and help provide a sense of direction in decision-making as well as help people understand the value the organisation adds to the wider world. Leaders should be focused on creating united teams working together, but often get caught up in internal politics, defending their domains against others, thereby adding to the very acts they should be protecting against. Then there’s the issue of trust. If left to their own devices, could people really be trusted at work? This suspicion can create an industry of policies and procedures, protecting the organisation against employees, only adding to the notion of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
Create a Great Remote Workplace Culture
With so much of the workforce no longer visible, and with the environment in which people are working completely outside of the control of leaders, many might be wondering how they can engage and what this will do to productivity. Where leaders could have walked through office buildings and observed behaviours, now none of this is visible with almost all interaction reliant on digital communication. A remote workplace culture requires the same focus as organisations put into defining their office workplace cultures. In a world making us question what really matters, many employees will be worried about the level of uncertainty and some might question the true value of their work.
The first thing to focus on is your organisational purpose/ mission. Help employees understand why what your organisation (and therefore what they do) matters and think about how this could be relevant in the current climate. Ask people to share stories of how their work and therefore that of the organisation has helped others, directly or indirectly. Celebrate these and share them, because employees need to know their work matters. This will go a long way to helping build a group identity, albeit remotely.
Whatever your strategy might have been before COVID-19, this will undoubtedly need to adapt to the emerging world. For employees to feel that their work matters and is relevant, they will want to know what happens now – do they continue to work on what they did previously? The quicker you can inform employees of what is expected of them, the greater the certainty and engagement. If possible, involve them. History has shown us that the few at the top don’t always have all the answers. A great way to drive trust is through involvement, and this will give teams a sense of purpose and reinforce that group identity.
One of the concerns might be how hard your employees are working – find a way of monitoring this. Before you gasp, the focus is on making sure they are not working too hard, as opposed to working hard enough. In the past, some leaders may have resisted introducing flexible working as it would be impossible knowing whether employees were working as efficiently as possible, rather than distracted with daytime tv. We mustn’t forget that when people join organisations, they join engaged – disengagement is an output of what happens to people as a result of the experiences they have at work. The default must be to trust that talented people have joined your organisation to do great work. But with remote working, some employees might feel that they need to work much harder to demonstrate how effective they are being, for fear of their work not being as visible, and therefore counted. Help give teams clarity of what is expected of them, the standard of work required, and by when. Leave the rest to them, to see how they deliver great work, after all creativity and innovation isn’t going to come from telling people how to do their jobs. Micro-managing them will only drive them further away and increase stress levels for everyone.
During extreme times such as these, review your values and the behaviours that accompany them and ask yourself how you could truly demonstrate these in the remote working climate. If no-one knew your organisation’s values, would they be able to guess them from the way people interact digitally? Give your team the challenge of reviewing their digital interactions and reflect on what values they are demonstrating, celebrating those who have really brought these to life – with authenticity. Keep communicating with teams through a virtual huddle in the morning and just before the end of the day, to allow teams to realise the value they have added each day and celebrate successes.
The world of work looks like it is changing irreversibly, and with the same urgency that the strategy will be reviewed, the organisational culture needs to be too. This is an opportunity to reflect upon the values – were they fit for purpose in the first place, to provide a sense of direction in how people conducted themselves, and did people live up to them when it mattered most? What behaviours were witnessed and how many of them were aligned to the values? Organisations are so much more reliant on the discretionary effort provided by employees working remotely, but this needs to be balanced so they are not working to levels of burnout due to the mistrust of leaders, but also care passionately enough about what the organisation is there to deliver, to give the best of themselves whilst at work. Leaders play a critical role in helping employees feel connected to the organisation, to feel a sense of identification with the organisation and its purpose or mission. Whilst the world is changing, this could be the start of a new era, void of meaningless statements, instead focused on passion and meaning, where compassionate leadership creates great remote workplace cultures, allowing employees and therefore organisations to thrive.