It is often said that culture is the way that we do things around here. There’s something a little too passive about that terminology for me. Like it is something that just is, rather than something we have influence over or strive for. Organisational culture is a social construct. It doesn’t exist in reality, only within the meaning that we ascribe to it. It is a shared belief. We often use the phrase ‘organisational culture’ to mean different, hard to describe things. It is an imprecise term – but an important one. A recent Microsoft survey put ‘positive culture’ at the top of their want list when searching for a new role.
There are other definitions of organisational culture. Many reflect on shared beliefs, attitudes, values and assumptions. This one, from an article on HBR, I particularly like: Culture is a carrier of meaning. Cultures provide not only a shared view of “what is” but also of “why is.” Culture is about the organisational story.
I am often asked questions about organisational culture in remote and hybrid working environments. How to build it and how to sustain it. If we follow the traditional definition, then of course you already have a culture. It’s the way you do things in that remote or hybrid environment. Is it however, the one that you desire, and the one that will support the organisation’s aims and objectives?
The cultures that organisations had before the pandemic no longer exist. It is the way that you used to do things around here. There have been few businesses untouched in some way, large or small, and you cannot go back to something that no longer is. But it is possible to create something new. To evolve culture, in a way that sustains new models of work.
It is entirely possible to build and maintain a positive and resilient organisational culture in a fully remote or hybrid working environment. The starting point is determining what we mean by that, and what it is that we truly want to achieve. From there, radical intentionality. Placing sustained attention, effort and focus on that desired culture. Building it into every single that is done – and not expecting it to come to life on its own, or because it has been defined and described.
At the heart of culture, is people. They are the ones that bring organisational visions, values and mission to life. They are the ones that exhibit the behaviours, share the beliefs, tell the stories, develop the meaning. To do these things in the past we have often relied on people being in the same physical space to do these things (whether that was a successful strategy being a whole other discussion). We can’t do that now. So we need to do something else (better) instead.
For the purpose of this blog post I am going to define a ‘positive’ organisation culture as one which is healthy (in terms of working practices and people management), clearly articulated and understood, and lived every day. To achieve this, in a remote or hybrid working environment, there are steps that we can take.
- Clearly articulate your values and organisational purpose. This doesn’t mean a list on the wall of aspirational words like ‘innovation’ or ‘respect’. It means surfacing what really matters, sharing the organisational story and being clear about the direction of travel. Who are you, why do you exist? Share this everywhere, and embed into people practices like recruitment, induction and performance management. Be clear on what you expect from people (not by giving them a behavioural framework please).
- Focus on meaningful work. This is another imprecise term with multiple definitions. Research suggests that it includes helping to see the greater good or contribution of the work, work that is aligned with self-identity and personal values, and work that has intrinsic value. Help people to find the meaning in what they do and how they contribute – or help people to find it through additional activities through opportunities to give back outside of work tasks.
- Reflect your desired culture within the employment lifecycle. In who you recruit, how you induct them, train, reward, promote and recognise. This serves to continuously reinforce desired culture.
- Create meaningful face-time and connect people. During the pandemic we have lost some of our connection with others, and there is a need to rebuild social capital. We also need to provide ongoing connection between employees and across teams. We are hard wired to be social creatures. Support people in building deeper connections. Give permission to spend time on this, making it clear this is valued by the organisation. Create moments of connection, appreciation, celebration. Bring people together with purpose.
- Include wellbeing. Employees want to feel like they matter. That they are cared for and valued. An organisational culture that respects and prioritises wellbeing will further enable productivity, motivation and commitment.
- Leaders have to focus on relationships, not tasks. In remote working environments managers and leaders who focus on the
softhard skills like empathy, emotional intelligence and trust will create a more positive culture (and better results) than those who focus mainly on task and hands-on management. More than ever we need leaders to get their role in culture – and be great role models for the behaviour that we want to see at work. Poor managers undermine positive organisational culture.
- Create principles for your hybrid and remote ways of working – and make people accountable for upholding them. The FutureForum calls these guardrails. This helps to reinforce that your culture is hybrid and remote, and how it will work in practice. Principles and guardrails help to translate your desired culture into the way that you want people to behave and engage.
There are no quick fixes or silver bullets in developing culture in hybrid and remote organisations. It will take intentionality and ongoing effort. It is however, an essential criteria for success.