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Within just a few weeks earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a massive shift to remote work that may change the office as we know it forever. Many large companies are urging employees to work from home for months to come, and some CFOs are making plans to shed office real estate and permanently move some portion of their workforces to remote working.
With such a swift and large-scale exodus of white-collar workers from their offices, it’s no surprise that some feel nostalgic for even the mundane facets of office life: the cubicle mazes, bad coffee, and watercooler conversation. What makes office life meaningful for many, though, is that it helps sustain organizational culture — the largely taken-for-granted beliefs and practices that underpin how people work together. These are harder to feel and maintain when so many of us are crouched at a kitchen table, fending off children and pets, and growing exhausted with a constant stream of videoconference meetings.
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Although remote working is far from new — 8% of U.S. employees worked from home at least once a week before the pandemic — the benefits of face-to-face interaction for individual well-being and corporate culture are clear. In fact, IBM, a pioneer in remote working that heralded the benefits of having 40% of its workforce working remotely in 2009, made headlines in 2017 when it brought thousands of employees back to the office.
It turns out that even in today’s world of abundant online collaboration tools, there is often no substitute for copresence when communication, problem-solving, and creativity are called for. In part, this is because as humans, we make sense of the world and our interactions through our body language, emotions, and embodied experiences, all of which are much different in a virtual space.1
What will the exodus from offices do to organizational culture, which is felt and experienced more than it is articulated? How can managers and employees sustain a culture, or adapt it effectively, in the face of extended periods of remote working?
How Organizational Culture Works — Without an Office
Culture is the holistic and somewhat mysterious force that guides actions and interactions in the workplace. Despite a company’s best efforts to capture culture in words, such as the stated values or commitments posted on the wall, most employees would recognize these as, at best, sparse signposts of a more complex, subtle ethos that pervades everything they do — one that, after a while, becomes largely taken for granted. That’s why we often recognize our organization’s culture only when we step outside of it — for example, by working closely with a new client or switching companies, roles, or geographies, or perhaps through the sudden loss of it when working at our kitchen tables with no physical interaction with colleagues.
The good news is that some of the most visible signifiers of culture, such as foosball tables or in-house chefs, are only what MIT professor emeritus Edgar Schein refers to as its artifacts — at best, they’re vehicles for interactions that fuel a real culture of, say, playful creativity.2 When the artifacts change, the deeper cultural beliefs and habitual practices need not also change.
But when people return to work, the workplace itself will be physically transformed to shield employees from one another and enforce new hygiene standards. How can managers ensure that valued aspects of the culture endure?
Make culture visible by calling it out. Aspects of culture are present — though often obscured — in seemingly mundane, day-to-day happenings, like colleagues interacting or making decisions. Sociologist Ann Swidler describes habitual practices as the core carriers of culture. She argues that people draw from a “tool kit” of cultural habits and practices.3 Knowing how to use a culture’s tools — that is, when and how they apply — is the real mark of belonging to a culture.
In turn, the beliefs about how we do things as an organization are revealed through people’s practices. For example, at one major oil producer, employees default to “getting things done” — dropping other priorities and jumping in to solve problems as they come up — and those who rise through the ranks are particularly effective at such reactive problem-solving.4 Associated with this habitual practice is employees’ belief that their culture is entrepreneurial and even “scrappy,” especially when compared with peers they regard as more cautious and risk averse.
As everyday tasks now occur remotely and practices are sometimes hard to observe, it’s even more important for leaders and managers to call attention to and acknowledge which aspects of culture are on display and why that matters. For example, if a group is making a decision about how some core aspect of its service offering will shift online for a period of time, the nature of the problem-solving around those challenges should reflect valued aspects of the culture. A manager might remind team members that they arrived at a certain approach because they are so skilled at drawing on multiple perspectives for input. Laying bare this aspect of the cultural tool kit not only reminds people of its existence but also signals its value; by authentically reflecting employees’ skills, the company’s solution should align better with customers’ expectations, even as competitors are making similar shifts.
Perhaps as important is calling out affronts to culture. When managers don’t visibly censure practices that depart from the desired culture, the boundaries of culture are not well defined. Finally, invite others to name or defend cultural norms when they see them in operation. Culture cannot be simply espoused by leaders but must arise from and resonate with employees’ experiences.
Welcome modifications to the cultural tool kit. One benefit of thinking about culture as a tool kit is that it alerts us to the fact that we have a variety of tools at our disposal when we get things done in an organization. And, like a real tool kit, we often have more tools than we regularly use. But Swidler argues that this very feature — knowing more culture than we use — is what enables us to use culture flexibly and somewhat expansively. Sometimes it might be entirely appropriate to be entrepreneurial, but under other circumstances in the same organization, it’s important to be risk averse.
Tool kits also change somewhat over time. This is because we all are exposed to various cultural tool kits through other aspects of our lives — such as volunteer activities, sports teams, or even our home lives. Employees can begin to use habits and practices developed elsewhere and perhaps begin to influence how others act, ultimately expanding the cultural tool kit in their workplace.
With your workforce now scattered and working from home, other practices might be more readily at hand. Are best practices from Zoom yoga sessions infiltrating your work calls? Are the ways that teachers coax input from your reticent teens during homeschooling influencing how you check in with your team? These may be useful practices to cultivate as part of a modified cultural tool kit. After all, we now understand organizational cultures to be much more open and interactive with their surrounding environments — responsive to expectations to be more socially and environmentally responsible, for example — and aligned with other aspects of employees’ experiences beyond the workplace.5 Now might be an opportune time to actively notice when your organization’s cultural tool kit is being flexed or extended.
For instance, employees’ actions to connect creatively with vulnerable people in their communities might be showing up as new ways of enacting a cultural commitment to inclusivity at work. By noticing these actions and explaining how they connect to existing elements in the tool kit, managers can reinforce how their culture is responsive to changing circumstances. Conversely, unwelcome modifications to the cultural tool kit that undermine core beliefs should be swiftly countered, perhaps by offering alternatives that are more culturally in tune. After all, cultures thrive and evolve when they are cohesive, meaning that even divergent actions stem from common beliefs but devolve when they allow unmitigated variety.
Use disruption to bolster the cultural core. Not every aspect of culture is equally critical to guard. Some of what is in a cultural tool kit may be the equivalent of many sizes of picture hangers — useful but only somewhat substitutable and applicable in relatively limited situations. Other contents of the cultural tool kit might be more akin to your grandfather’s well-worn measuring tape — applicable in a variety of situations and holding special value because it is connected to memories and history that are important to you.
A time of disruption presents an opportunity to remind employees of aspects of an organization’s past — founding ideals, stories, and commitments — that have shaped both its culture (how we get work done and think about our work) and are central to its identity (who we are as a company). Building up these core elements of culture can remind employees of an organization’s strengths and help them navigate tough times.
For example, MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, recently reminded the university community of the institution’s evolution from a technical college to a leading research entity as a result of World War II: An intense effort to develop radar technology birthed an interdisciplinary, collaborative culture that students, faculty, and staff continue to recognize and value. That collaborative ethos will be critical to how the organization might evolve as a result of the current pandemic.
Conversely, disruption can also open the door to challenging outdated aspects of a culture that are nonetheless given outsize symbolic and ceremonial value but are now holding back needed transitions.6 Some organizations are finding that long-desired changes, like decentralizing their decision-making or becoming less bureaucratic, have suddenly — and surprisingly — taken place in mere weeks. These changed practices will last, however, only with ongoing work to connect them to some existing aspects of the culture and to suppress or eliminate other aspects that fight against them.
And managers should take care in making changes: Attempting to change aspects of culture that are tied strongly to an organization’s identity can be especially disruptive and generate strong emotions.7
Not all organizations will emerge stronger from the current pandemic and the devastating health, economic, and social impacts it is unleashing. But managers and leaders with a firm sense of what their organizational culture is — a common tool kit that enables their employees to act, and the beliefs and commitments brought forward by acting in certain ways — can help their employees navigate the current environment in a way that is authentic to the organization’s history yet flexible to the realities we all face.
It may be a long time until many white-collar workers see their offices and gather with peers around the proverbial watercooler, but we can remind ourselves that it was never about the watercooler anyway. Culture is ultimately about the actions we take and make visible to others, and the meanings we invest in those — which is harder, but not impossible, to maintain from the kitchen table.
1. M. de Rond, I. Holeman, and J. Howard-Grenville, “Sensemaking From the Body: An Enactive Ethnography of Rowing the Amazon,” Academy of Management Journal 62, no. 6 (December 2019): 1961-1988.
2. E.H. Schein, “Organizational Culture and Leadership,” 5th ed. (Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley, 2017).
3. A. Swidler, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” American Sociological Review 51, no. 2 (April 1986): 273-286.
4. S. Bertels, J. Howard-Grenville, and S. Pek, “Cultural Molding, Shielding, and Shoring at Oilco: The Role of Culture in the Integration of Routines,” Organization Science 27, no. 3 (May-June 2016): 573-593.
5. J. Howard-Grenville, K. Golden-Biddle, J. Irwin, et al., “Liminality as Cultural Process for Cultural Change,” Organization Science 22, no. 2 (March-April 2011): 522-539; and S.H. Harrison and K.G. Corley, “Clean Climbing, Carabiners, and Cultural Cultivation: Developing an Open-Systems Perspective of Culture,” Organization Science 22, no. 2 (March-April 2011): 391-412.
6. H. Ibarra, “Take a Wrecking Ball to Your Company’s Iconic Practices,” MIT Sloan Management Review 61, no. 2 (winter 2020): 13-16.
7. A. Canato, D. Ravasi, and N. Phillips, “Coerced Practice Implementation in Cases of Low Cultural Fit: Cultural Change and Practice Adaptation During the Implementation of Six Sigma at 3M,” Academy of Management Journal 56, no. 6 (December 2013): 1724-1753.