The pandemic has shown up shortcomings in organisational culture

Experts advise on how managers can build a better workplace culture in 2021

A sure way to start a lively debate in any workplace is to bring up the subject of organisational culture. Most people accept it exists and that it plays a role in shaping how people act at work, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Opinions diverge widely when it comes to agreeing on what organisational culture is, what forms it, how it influences behaviour and how or if it can be changed.

Every organisation has a culture based on its mores and ways of doing things and the pandemic has shown it up for better or for worse. Gaps, shortcomings and omissions quickly surfaced as employees transitioned to home working. Even companies with positive, robust cultures have had to pedal hard to maintain them as the coronavirus crisis has unfolded.

“More and more, companies are starting to understand that they need to show employees that they value them as whole people,” says Mark McClain, the co-founder of US tech company SailPoint and the author of Joy and Success at Work: Building Organisations that Don’t Suck (the Life Out of People).

“If you respect them, value them and treat them as professionals, they will go through walls for you. If you don’t or if you create an environment where the very thought of coming to work creates anxiety, then they are going to look for employment elsewhere.”

McClain says that, as companies try to balance remote working with a return to the office, it is critical that culture-related problems are diagnosed and addressed. However, he notes that too often leaders don’t have the time to dig into the root of the problem or may not know how to reach out to their people to find out or come up with solutions.

His tips for how managers can build a better workplace culture in 2021 include making the health and wellbeing of employees the top priority and promoting a good work-life balance to avoid people burning out and destroying their working and personal lives along the way.

Some people are jerks

Also, be sure that any new hires are a good “fit” for the company’s culture. “Some people are very capable, but they happen to be jerks. No matter how smart such a person might be, the negatives will eventually outweigh the positives,” he says.

What companies should avoid at all costs is creating a fake culture because it always backfires.

“Pseudo cultures are thinly veiled come-ons where companies offer massages, free beer or other perks to attract employees,” McClain says. “Eventually, people figure out that a cool employee lounge with a ping-pong table does not make for a successful company. Real organisational cultures are reflections of how companies treat people and create useful products.”

Remote working coupled with blurred work/life boundaries has upped the ante for those trying to keep their teams on point but McClean says that a proven way to maintain engagement is to get to know people better.

“The gut feeling leaders need in this regard develops over time with a determination to know your people as individuals. Not all managers are willing to do that and that’s a mistake. Showing genuine concern can uncover issues that can steer the employee to the help they need.”

Stay tuned in

Helen Gallagher is global head of HR for the Irish-owned recruitment company Morgan McKinley, which has been using surveys to stay tuned in to its 700-strong distributed workforce over the last 10 months. "In October, we looked for feedback on how our culture had been impacted by the new ways of working," she says. "Based on the results we focused on driving change and improvements in four main areas: balance, communication, wellbeing and fun."

Some of the practical steps taken to address concerns about balance included introducing a company-wide 3pm finishing time on a Friday and cutting hour-long meetings back to 45 minutes to give everyone breathing spaces during their day.

Employees were also asked to block out an hour for lunch on their calendars each day and, where feasible, people could choose to do a walking meeting instead of always sitting behind their desk.

“Recruitment tends to attract a younger cohort and they have really missed the social interaction,” Gallagher says. “We are very aware that we have employees working from their bedrooms and in house share situations that can be inherently stressful so we have tried to keep people as connected as possible through groups for everything from pets and cooking to book clubs and parenting. We’ve been encouraging people to take up fitness challenges and have tried to compensate for the lack of social events with online activities.”

Morgan McKinley's offices in Asia felt the impact of the coronavirus before it hit Europe so the Irish operation knew what was coming to some extent.

“In early days, we used the time to plot our strategic course for the future and to learn lessons from what the pandemic was teaching us about resilience, hybrid working, normal working routines and even the need for real estate,” Gallagher says.

“We are much more upbeat about 2021. We’re hiring and our clients are hiring. The main difference now is more demand for agile, contract, and remote working. The pandemic has been a turning point for us in terms of organisational development and culture. It gave us the opportunity to progress initiatives far more quickly and to really think about our values.”

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