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Leadership development April 8, 2021

Bringing company culture to the home office

White male sitting beside Asian female both smiling at laptop screen working together
Organizational culture is a set of shared assumptions, meanings, values, norms, and expected ways of interacting.

Despite being implicit, it has a strong impact on employee behavior, well-being, and productivity. A strong culture differentiates employee’s experience in a company from another, enhances their identification with the organization, and conveys meaning to them – making work more valuable than just earning a living. A strong culture keeps companies together. But how we used to connect to and build organizational cultures has changed dramatically under COVID-19, requiring leaders to pivot with new culture-building strategies that keep teams together and thriving.

How it was, how it’s going

Traditionally, employees “learn” organizational culture while interacting with the organization at points along the employee life-cycle. There are the preliminary fantasies of the place based on stories from friends working there, social media channels, official recruitment ads, or a headhunter’s portrayal.  The selection phase that follows is based on, among other factors, a candidate’s evaluations of her potential colleagues and their interactions, the physical environment, and the perceived efficiency of organizational processes. The culture learning continues through the socialization process –  provided by onboarding, task experiences, and observation – on to her acceptance, as an employee, of “the way things are done here.”

The disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis has changed all of that.

With the abrupt movement to remote work and online-only interactions for many employees, these traditional ways of experiencing and learning organizational culture have largely vanished. Formal introductions still take place, but the cultural cues gained over a cup of coffee, on a trip to visit a customer, or on a walk from the office to the subway are not there. Informal network structures – often assessed by watching who goes with whom to lunch or who sits where at meetings – are more difficult to learn. There is a lack of information and less clarity about rewarded or sanctioned behaviors – whether by bosses or employee groups – and fewer markers of real versus declared priorities. Organizational departures or career trajectories, particularly beyond one’s current function, are obscure, and not helpful in guiding the newcomer’s behavior regarding her development and growth opportunities. Moreover, it is harder to gauge how committed top leaders are to proclaimed organizational values.

New strategies needed (and now)

In my teaching, coaching, and consulting practice, I am hearing from leaders who are fearful about what these challenges will mean for the future culture of their teams. I am also hearing from managers and their new team members about the strategies they are now using and find helpful in their culture transmission and learning efforts. The academic jury is still out on the effectiveness of these approaches, but these experiments may help people learn and embrace culture under today’s new working conditions.

Roll out the virtual red carpet. If your organization doesn’t have a formal welcome event for new hires, consider creating one. Think about the resources that will help them get to know the company, its history, and values. Have a package of information about the company’s strategy, key client analytics, product portfolio, etc. If possible, organize a virtual tour of production facilities or offices in the relevant geographical areas. Make sure to share what, in your private opinion, sets the company apart.

Set culture learning targets. Spend time with the newcomer in establishing objectives for the onboarding period. Include in the plan the expectations about developing relationships, acquiring specific knowledge, and getting up to speed on tasks. Make sure that you leave some room for the new hire’s own onboarding objectives and culture learning tasks. Agree on the rhythm of check-ins and ways of asking for help and support.

Draw the map. Understanding and navigating organizational relationships are critical for newcomer success. An actual map of these connections can be drawn from internal sources – such as a role description, workgroups and committees, or documents related to a job handover – and from external ones, such as contracts with a supplier or information about a relationship with a critical client. Review the map with the newcomer in detail, including the basic norms and principles of interactions therein (e.g., the degree of formality in communication). Using this map to make personal (online) introductions will help her and the others start on the right foot.

Organize a ride-along. Think about taking the newcomer with you to (virtual) meetings that would help her better understand your plans and concerns. Let the person “shadow” you in interactions at your level so that she quickly sees the bigger picture, recognizes the way you work with others, and gets a glimpse into the power and politics of the organization. If appropriate, have the newcomer shadow customer calls or virtual visits. Run a debrief discussion with a newcomer after the event.

Bring in a buddy. Coach the existing team on their role in onboarding the newcomers. Ask for volunteers to serve as a “buddy” for the person, but don’t leave it completely to them in how to serve in the role. Ask for their ideas on how they could have benefited from having a “buddy,” and add some of your own expectations for the process.

Become a storyteller. Share (and invite your team to share) with the newcomer some stories about people, clients, products, or critical moments that have had an impact on you, the team, and the organization. Incidents that have triggered strong emotional reactions, such as extreme pride and joy, can be especially compelling. Add these stories to some of your regular team meetings or individual check-ins, or organize “story time” as a dedicated, virtual, team-building activity. You may also want to bring in members from another function or part of the organization to share their stories.

Listen to what she says about you. When supporting or denying a request, agreeing with the newcomer’s ideas, or asking her to do something differently, provide an explanation, and, when doing so, try to make a connection to the cultural aspects that you want her to learn. At the same time, don’t shy away from discussing with the newcomer what she finds positive or challenging in her learning of the organizational culture and adjustment to the new work reality. Ask about what she has noticed and how, in her opinion, culture plays out in the work-life of your team and organization. Don’t miss an opportunity to see if there is something in the culture of the organization that might become an obstacle for future success.

We have not yet reached our “post-COVID” future. These strategies on how to transmit cultural norms and create positive connections with an organization’s culture are thus still experiments. In all respects, however, giving your time and attention now to newcomer socialization can give you insight on how your organization’s culture is going and may strengthen the culture of your future organization, regardless of the future setup (online, offline, or hybrid) of your team.

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