In the face of a global health crisis dramatically shaping the face of work, there has been extensive discussion over company culture and how companies can “maintain” their culture while navigating current challenges.
Before we can help companies navigate such waters, we must first examine what constitutes workplace culture, how it is formed, and who truly drives it within an organization.
Company culture and its shortcomings
Culture is not something you can obtain or lose, and it cannot be measured or defined in neat, definitive terms. Instead, culture is ever-present. Culture evolves continuously based on the unique organization and workforce. It’s a dynamic sense of purpose that is shaped by a myriad of factors from social and economic to technological and political.
Corporate culture is a nuanced product of each department, each team, and each individual worker in those teams. To that end, within any workplace culture, there are subcultures, which are dependent on different roles, skills, and functions. These different capabilities are derived from distinct behaviors and tendencies. So in a nutshell, each area of a business has its own language and way of doing work. And within each business team, employees have diverse geographies, economic backgrounds, religions, and educational experiences that drive the ways in which they collaborate and work together. Together, these factors create what can be considered organizational culture.
What many have become accustomed to when organizations try to “create” a culture (such as free lunches, massage sessions, game rooms in the office) are merely workplace perks. These tangible attempts to define a certain atmosphere cannot be held equivalent to the shared sense of purpose that drives each worker to show up and be a part of something greater.
While many organizations tend to define culture through a mission statement and a set of corporate values, this cannot be created by leadership. Culture creates itself organically by each employee’s diverse backgrounds and beliefs, and changes as soon as a new employee walks through the door.
Culture within a virtual environment
Each business—teams within these businesses—grapple with different pressures. Among different businesses and different teams within those businesses, each one faces unique pressures in a virtual environment. For those companies who have been able to transition the majority of their workers to remote work, there has likely been a change in culture.
The everyday connections that bring workers together and feed cultural development have been replaced by voice or video calls. The office environment plays a crucial role in how employees and leaders develop cultural connections.
And as employees remain remote and continue to miss these critical connections, the effect is exchanges and interpersonal dynamics feel flattened.
With the lack of in-person gatherings, there have been discussions around culture and how executives can nurture them from afar. A significant challenge is that culture cannot be created from a top-down approach. Instead, it must come from the individual level. The interactions among co-workers is part of this process. So to channel a successful company culture, leaders must engage employees on a personal level to establish genuine connections.
Purpose and culture
Re-defining the company’s purpose is key in nurturing cultural connections. A leader must ensure that the purpose is authentic and not merely words, but rather actions that can be seen and felt. To achieve this purpose, setting strong values, which all groups can truly embrace, can bring people together.
Engaged leadership must remain present and work to establish their connections with their employees and team members in an intentional way. This can be as simple as sharing more about themselves to establish authentic dialogue. Seeing glimpses of each other’s home lives, as dogs bark in the background of phone calls and family life blends with the professional, has given leaders the opportunity to open up in unprecedented ways. Such open conversation can build a new level of trust, which is central to sustaining team cohesion.
Nurturing culture today
As team leaders and their employees continue to navigate a remote workplace, there are some exercises they can employ virtually, designed to spark real conversation, learning, sharing, and more importantly, the strengthening of shared values and purpose. Creating these cultural conversations, from sharing family recipes to telling the story behind how you got your name, can have a deep unifying effect and offer insight into each team member’s unique personal experience.
Culture is not static; it’s not simply a set of values or a singular mission statement. To treat it as such diminishes work culture and the role it plays in how people come together to get work done.
As many workers try to collectively come together while distant, there is a challenge to nurture the shared values and sense of purpose that differentiate an organization. But through genuine communication and a commitment to finding shared connections, companies can emerge from this moment of crisis more unified.
Martha Bird is a business anthropologist working in ADP’s Roseland Innovation Lab.