For about 18 months, businesses have grappled with the disruption, uncertainty and stress brought on by COVID. Now that leaders are contemplating their return-to-office plans, a new round of disruption is taking place. In the midst of this upheaval, leaders have the opportunity – and boards would say the requirement – to intentionally reform their cultures.
“Corporate culture usually develops organically over time,” explains Bill Glenn, executive chairman of Crenshaw Associates. “As we move into a post-pandemic world, business leaders should carefully consider the culture they want to adopt and nurture going forward. They have a small window of time, while things are still in flux, to identify, encourage and exhibit the beliefs and behaviors that will successfully position their companies for the future.”
What is culture?
The NeuroLeadership Institute, which analyzes the science of leadership, defines culture as shared everyday habits. Dr. David Rock, the organization’s co-founder and CEO, describes it this way: “The way leaders listen (or don’t) to their people. The way meetings are run, where people feel like they can speak up, or not. The speed at which good ideas can flow through an organization. The physical space may nod to the culture—nap pods, dry cleaners on-site, and tiki bar-themed conference rooms all say something about what you want from employees—but it’s not the culture.”
Whether employees are based in a single corporate headquarters or spread from New York to London to Mumbai to Singapore, those shared habits encourage alignment among diverse groups of stakeholders.
“Culture is measured from the bottom up but driven from the top down,” says Jennifer Eggers, an executive advisor and resilience expert with Crenshaw Associates. “Leaders have the power to purposefully shape those everyday habits. If leaders want to see changes, they’ve got the power to make them happen in the moment in every interaction they have.”
Step 1: Accept that your company has changed.
Eggers notes that most companies had to make several adaptations as a result of the pandemic. For example, maybe face time was a critical part of your culture but you successfully shifted to a fully virtual environment. Maybe you implemented your first-ever flexible work policies to enable employees to attend to their children who were home-schooling. Whatever the specifics, it’s highly unlikely your corporate culture will return to its former state.
Step 2: Take stock of the shifts in your market.
Your market may have shifted as a result of COVID. Your customers’ buying patterns may have changed and they may have new expectations or new requirements, which will likely impact your business. Customers may have attritted and new ones emerged. In any event, they – and likely your employees – have adapted and are continuing to adapt. As the environment begins to open up, it’s important to determine which shifts are temporary and which ones are permanent.
Step 3: Adjust your business strategy.
Once you understand how your market has changed, your strategies and business model must be adjusted in response. For example, in the business-to-business sector, if key customers are allowing employees to work remotely full-time, you may need to trade in continuous travel and face-to-face client meetings for many more Zoom calls, Eggers notes. Your ability to adapt well – for example, keeping meetings interactive and reducing Zoom exhaustion – will determine your effectiveness.
Step 4: Identify the implications for your culture.
As you begin to understand how to succeed in this new business environment, it’s necessary to embrace the cultural changes brought about by this new normal. “Culture needs to evolve as business models evolve. How should your culture adapt as you consider the aftermath of the pandemic?” asks Glenn.
Before you can successfully execute a new strategy, you need to have insight into what worked and didn’t work in response to the pandemic. “This is the time to have inclusive conversations around what you learned about yourselves, your teammates and your organization,” echoes Eggers.
Step 5: Determine how to close the culture gap.
Rather than trying to return to your pre-pandemic culture, retaining the business adaptations that worked well during COVID can help position your business for the future. “It’s particularly important to identify gaps between the current corporate culture and the desired future state,” Eggers adds. “This is an opportunity for leaders to implement policies that will drive the kind of culture they want to manifest.”
She tells of one company that wants to empower employees at lower levels to make decisions. “Rather than penalizing people for making the wrong decisions, they’re now rewarding people for owning their roles and not delegating up,” Eggers explains.
“Another client wants to be less siloed. They’re creating project teams that encourage close cooperation among people from different functions. And leadership is modeling this new behavior themselves,” she says.
If leaders want to reign in the proliferation of Zoom calls, Eggers advises them to stop scheduling formal meetings and instead pick up the phone and call someone for an informal chat.
In other words, it’s time to ask what work will look like when people return to the office. How should they connect? How can they collaborate more effectively? What does their leadership model look like? How can they cast a leadership shadow?
“People think of culture as soft and fuzzy. I think of culture as something that needs to be shaped intentionally to ensure that it enables your business to succeed. This is critical. Boards are looking for visibility and metrics around their culture. Changing your culture is critical to realizing real lasting changes and gains for your business,” she concludes.
Charles Darwin is often quoted as saying, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
There’s no doubt the pandemic forced companies to transform. Business leaders now have the opportunity to implement new policies and procedures that take into account what’s necessary for today.