Reinforcing work culture in the home office
Various aspects of work culture may be seen as great or horrible by different employees, because of the different objectives they have as part of their membership in the organization. However, the average employee will not notice the pressure coming from this force, as long as they don’t perceive it to be an obstacle on the path to their goals. Indeed, if your employees never have to think about their organizational culture, you probably have a good working culture. The moment they see negative interference in the “way we do things around here,” a common definition of culture, the culture becomes an issue.
For many, the coronavirus pandemic changed “the way we do things around here.” The work-from-home environment means fewer opportunities for employees to see, hear, or discuss the organization. Leaders must thus increase emphasis on cultural elements in their interactions with employees, with powerful examples or stories illustrating their messages.
A culture shift
Although invisible, culture works through human interactions. These may be direct – as in discussions, meetings, or training sessions – or indirect, as when observing other people or hearing stories. Seemingly small things – such as the boundary signals of a closed door or adherence to norms (e.g., when you should arrive at or depart from the office) – are learned and reinforced by watching others, trying your own ways, and getting direct or indirect feedback.
The strength of observation is limited with a decrease in actual social contact. Take identity display, for example. If a colleague has a picture on their desk from a weekend of skydiving, you can read it as a signal to have a conversation about their non-work interests. If, on the contrary, all you see of a colleague is a Zoom box with their name on it, you are less likely to engage in small talk or dare try to learn more about the person, which also transmits cultural messages.
Culture is supported and transmitted through the messages and visible actions of top management, through explanations given to critical organizational decisions, and through reactions to visible incidents (e.g., safety issues, customer relationship debacles, or societal crises).
If employees observe that what is being said and demonstrated by leaders consistently influences organizational decisions, they assess to what extend it corresponds to their goals. If the correlation is positive, they internalize “the way we do things around here” and behave accordingly. If not, they reject the new cultural norms.
Leaders who explain their decisions and ground them in the company’s stable (or changing) values help employees orientate themselves in terms of what the organization and its management believe to be the right thing to do.
Leaders must attend to the fairness elements in the culture they are trying to build. If your organization has different working conditions for various categories of employees (with some, for example, having to be present most of the time at the office or on the shop floor, and others having a choice where to work from), you may want to consider how the total flexibility for some may (negatively) affect the others.
Leaders must spend more time communicating with the employees and explaining key organizational decisions, with an emphasis on value-based aspects of the decision-making process. Employees want to hear how management choices are connected to the identity of the organization, to what makes this company different from other players in the market. In case of remote work, employees also need to hear about the decisions and developments happening outside of their direct area of responsibilities.
Leaders also need to prove that although people may be physically remote, they are not psychologically distant from them. Feedback from employees on how they and, in their mind, the organization is doing becomes important for their perceived ability of getting their goals achieved. If an employee believes they can’t reach their goals, and if nobody listens to them when they raise their issues, they feel the negative aspects of the culture. It is not enough to solicit feedback. Leaders need to let their followers know that they have received it and analyzed it. They also need to let people know if they are going to act on the feedback or explain the reasons they won’t.
Many organizations try to create an element of physical connection with remote employees by sending them corporate merchandise. Artefacts can help if there is a story behind them and various organizational leaders use them. If I get a corporate-branded shirt and then see a senior leader proudly wearing the same one during an in-person or remote presentation of a customer success story, I am more likely to see the shirt as a connection to the organization rather than wasted money.
Clarify career paths
Evaluating individual contributions to the work of the collective is an organizational challenge – and more so in work-from-home and hybrid work environments. While remote work provides a lot of flexibility for workers, it creates issues for evaluation of the outcomes and their future potential. With some tasks where individual contribution can be identified (e.g., where a “ticket” can be assigned to a particular employee), assessment of the contribution is relatively easy. However, the ability of the person to rise to a supervisory level, where the ability to create and manage interconnected tasks is important, is significantly more difficult to assess.
When thinking about career development in a hybrid environment, HR should become more vigilant about potentially excluding people from opportunities. Simultaneously, they must be honest about the expectations that the role imposes on the incumbent regarding how and where they work, and how, as discussed above, they are expected to reinforce organizational culture.
This article was originally published by Forbes on September 27, 2022, and republished with permission.