Culture is Portable

One of my "offices" at Baker Beach, San Francisco. Photo by Suzanne O'Brien
One of my "offices" at Baker Beach, San Francisco. Photo by Suzanne O'Brien

How to Design and Build a Culture In a Crisis and Beyond

Now more than ever, there is a greater need to design or revisit the elements of our culture as we address Zoom fatigue, tighter integration of home and work, systemic racism, and the resulting mental health issues of these crises. 

Crises reveal how strong your culture is and, more importantly, the cracks that need to be addressed.

Despite the concern that culture will be gone with the office, culture is not going anywhere. It never was anywhere.  If you think of culture as ping pong tables, nap pods, and even Twitter’s famous maple bacon apple donuts (which are really good), then you would be right. But perks are not culture. 

Culture is not what happens at an office. Culture is how work happens between people. It is every interaction you have, every decision you make. Culture is happening, whether by design or default. It is crisis and location agnostic. 

Culture is increasingly emerging as an important topic even at the corporate board level. The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) stated what a lot of us already know: a positive organizational culture can be a meaningful corporate asset in a variety of ways. 

According to 80% of company leaders surveyed by research and advisory firm Gartner, executives are not worried about maintaining productivity under a “hybrid workforce” model, but nearly one-third (30%) were most concerned about preserving corporate culture. 

Culture is a system of three elements: values and behaviors, practices, and processes.  

Now is the time to review whether your culture is still working for your employees. 

As one of my clients, a CEO of a fast-growing tech company, said, “Culture is the only thing we can control.”

Values & Behaviors: 

Values are at the center of culture, but they remain nothing more than words if they are not exemplified in behaviors, integrated into processes, and referenced through practices. 

Questions to ask to determine your values and behaviors:

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses as an organization? How do these show up in daily behaviors?
  • When you are having a good day, what behaviors do you/your employees experience the most? What about on a bad day? 
  • Share a meaningful moment you experienced while working at the company. What happened? What made that moment meaningful?

If you have already created values and behaviors: 

  • How have you leveraged your values and behaviors to make critical decisions? 
  • How have they guided your communication methods through challenging times? 
  • If you had to lay off employees, how did your values help you decide whom to retain and whom to lay off?  

Founded in 2013, Envoy is a San Francisco-based technology company transforming modern—and now safe—workplaces. One of its values is “Choose Action” with the behavior “We thrive in ambiguity and adapt to change.” Once the pandemic hit, the company’s leadership leveraged this behavior to pivot their business model to help organizations not only shift to modern workplaces but also ones prioritizing safety and health. Through a product called “Envoy Protect,” the company offers a playbook to aid companies transition back to offices as well as optimizing health and safety.

Processes: 

Processes are the formal, consistent and organization-wide approaches that help drive accountability and clarify decisions. They include the people-related processes of how we hire, onboard, develop, reward, give and receive feedback, recognize, promote, and offboard. They also include the decision-making and strategic goal-setting processes.

In a recent O.C. Tanner 2020 Cultural Report, only 42% of employees rate their experiences as positive or very positive. It’s unsurprising therefore that if offered a job at a different company with similar pay, role, and benefits, 59% of people would take it. The reason? Siloed, title-based decision-making processes, traditional leadership management practices, annual performance reviews, team structures, old technology tools. Their processes were disconnected from the values and mission of the organization. 

Questions to consider when developing people processes:

  • Which processes worked when most employees were together in an office but need to be updated for a virtual environment? (e.g. onboarding is one that a lot of companies are re-working) 
  • How have our strategic focus areas changed? Is everyone clear on how their objectives have changed and who they are working  with to achieve those objectives? 
  • How do our behaviors help or hinder us with making decisions as we work remotely? 

Practices

Practices are the informal, day-to-day, and sometimes more functionally-oriented actions or rituals that employees and teams implement. These include meetings, various communication vehicles, and informal team connection moments. Where processes are intentional outcomes of values & behaviors, practices need only be guided by them. 

Many companies I am working with are holding all-company meetings now on a weekly basis (up from monthly or even quarterly before). 

Questions to consider when developing practices:

  • What are the different forums for communication, and how can they be more effectively leveraged in virtual work? For example, maybe your All Hands meetings should shift from monthly to bi-monthly. All Hands can also be an opportunity to reinforce values and behaviors through stories and recognition awards. 
  • Review 1:1 meetings. One company I work with is doing 1:1s two times a week instead of their once-a-week pre-pandemic practice. 
  • Review your various communication vehicles. Slack, email, text, Google Docs, chats, phone calls, and video calls are all options. Be clear with your team about how to use these tools and the expectations around them. 

Communication & Reinforcement 

When sharing your values & behaviors— whether they have been newly created or updated— with the rest of the organization, provide context on how and why they were created or revised. Explain how they will be integrated into processes and practices. At PGA, every employee has a dedicated values goal. 

When you design culture with behaviors based on your values, processes, and practices, you are designing and building a stronger, connected organization that can thrive in good times and adapt effectively in bad times, wherever you are in the world.

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