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Will work communities thrive or falter online?

Can you do culture via Zoom?

Many people have returned to an office this week for the first time in 18 months, but for others their roles are now a hybrid mix, or they’re working permanently from the kitchen table.  

Across the pandemic it’s been amazing to see how people have demonstrated agility and developed new work patterns. We’ve seen managers and leaders step up and engage in innovative ways. One of our clients – a rail company was operating effectively from people’s homes. When you think about that, it’s mind boggling.

So, we’re all talking about the ‘new norm’. But can you do culture via zoom?

A lot of organisations struggle to create the desired values and behaviours when they are in communal spaces. So how much more difficult is it when teams are scattered and physically disconnected, operating from front rooms, kitchens and bedrooms?

People have started new jobs and have never physically met their manager or colleagues. We have witnessed some innovative ways of inducting people. But inductions give insights, they are not the full introduction to culture. They do not represent the lived experience of who we are and how we are, that gives that sense of belonging. We’ve got to exercise caution in thinking that the new norm is inevitably working from home, making innumerable Zoom calls.  

We don’t deny a new norm, we love the challenge of new. But if you want to maintain your uniqueness, you are going to have to be far more intentional about really understanding what your organisational culture is. How does it translate in a virtual world, how do we adapt without losing our essence?

The workplace has been redefined. The idea of commuting to a central location is no longer an expectation. But even working from home can test your tolerance. It can be a lonely, isolated space. We envisage an increase in local hubs for people to connect, occupied by people from different working genres.  

There is something enriching and exciting knowing that you can share a space with a creative, a developer, a social worker and a Head of HR for a global brand, that you’re together under one roof.  

We believe these experiences can bring a richness of sharing, connectivity and creativity. But such associations only enrich if everyone can bring their cultural nuances to the party.

Culture requires connectivity; the question is can you do it via Zoom?  

The construct of organisations is going to bear heavily on their culture. In his book The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society, Charles Handy talks of the contractual organisation, where fewer people are directly employed, but instead contract their services. The benefits for the organisation are reduced overheads and greater agility. But the downside is there will be no sense of community in a contractual organisation, core values are very hard to embed and what incentive is there for loyalty.

Another important factor is understanding the characteristics of your organisation’s culture. The Harvard Business Review published The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture, by Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price and J. Yo-Jud Cheng. They found that eight characteristics emerge when they mapped cultures along two dimensions: how people interact (independence to interdependence) and their response to change (flexibility to stability).  

Caring focuses on relationships and mutual trust

Purpose is exemplified by idealism and altruism  

Learning is characterised by exploration, expansiveness, and creativity

Enjoyment is expressed through fun and excitement  

Results are characterised by achievement and winning

Authority is defined by strength, decisiveness, and boldness  

Safety is defined by planning, caution, and preparedness

Order is focused on respect, structure, and shared norms

We shouldn’t see any one of these as better than another. Note some individuals will be find it easier to adjust (learning, caring, purpose) than others (authority, order).  

It means some organisations need to be more intentional than others. For those where more thought is required, external help will be needed, because the skills, competency and mindsets will not sit naturally within the leadership pool.  

Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

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