Can we retain our culture in the age of remote working

I know a lot of leaders are now grappling this question given that about 80% of employees have been working from home for the past 12 months and many will continue to do so for a while still. In addition to the question around retaining their culture, many are also questioning how can inclusivity be embedded as part of this culture too.

Remote working has no doubt highlighted some positive aspects from both a personal and team perspective but it has also brought with it some challenges. On a team level, we’ve all seen brilliant examples of teams working effectively together despite the lockdown and remote working conditions; things like virtual brainstorming exercises and training sessions being delivered seamlessly, as well as rapid developments in products and services to better serve customers.

However, 35% of leaders are reporting a drop in productivity since lockdown measures kicked in, which could be attributed to a number of reasons including burn out or family caring needs. We’ve also seen some challenges in how innovation and passion is driven across all levels within the business, as well as some challenges with regards to the ways of working with wider functions or business units in large organisations. Many of us can also report seeing an increase in that sense of isolation from the team, and a disconnect from the company purpose or strategy amongst certain populations within the workplace.

These are all dimensions of culture.

So to answer the original question, let’s revisit what culture is and how it’s manifested in organisations – on the face of it, culture is the patterns of behaviours that employees display, the unspoken rules that govern how things are done. It’s also the experience that employees live and breath every day when interacting with the organisation – and these manifested behaviours are all underpinned by an infrastructure made of technology, the company’s EVP, L&D practices and other people strategy, legal or HR frameworks. So any change in this infrastructure, as a result of social or global movements – like introducing remote working measures, or inclusivity KPIs, or a new company wide racial diversity advocate programme – will therefore have a ripple effect on behaviours displayed by leaders, and employees, meaning that the cultural architecture of the company is going to start to evolve.

The trick is to be aware of it, appreciate that we can’t stop it, and make sure its evolving in a way that is inclusive.

Now, here is an important point about this evolution. If there are policies and procedures within that infrastructure that don’t evolve as quickly as others, then this is where I see cultural misalignment; where the experience feels disjointed and confusion. So a couple of examples I’ve seen over the last few months:

  1. A brilliant return to work framework with the right safety measures in place for re-entering the workplace – a fantastic step – but if this goes ahead without a new wellbeing strategy that specifically looks at certain populations within the workplace, like parents, or vulnerable workers, or carers of vulnerable family members, then they may be left behind – perceiving that the organisation hasn’t considered their wellbeing and the impact this has on their families.
  2. On the flip side, a remote working policy that gets introduced without the legal frameworks around our duty of care for mental health, or perhaps without addressing the L&D strategy specifically for those that are joining the company during remote working conditions and the long term impact this will have on their sense of inclusivity, and their ability to learn from their colleagues about the job.

You can start to see this mismatch in intention vs perception, which inevitably happens when we have to react to rapid change. This mismatch will have unintended consequences on the behaviours of either leaders and employees, which will in turn cause serious harm to retention and inclusivity KPIs as well as the perception of the organisation’s culture… if a small population within your organisation perceive you in a specific way, then that is reality for them and for everyone that will hear them.

So having a clear inclusivity strategy that runs across that entire infrastructure that we talked about, is critical now more than ever – there needs to be a very clear and consistent approach to how you make sure you deal with all populations within the company, with really strong sponsorship and ownership, that can then drive that alignment across that infrastructure in order for your culture to evolve with the times.

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