- Michael J. Alter
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How Can Businesses Sustain a Strong Company Culture During a Pandemic?
According to an article by Stephanie Heiple, “Organizational Culture Implications on Office Design and Employee Performance,” the concept that each company has a culture is a relatively new idea.
It was first expressed in a 1998 study by MIT’s Sloan School of Management where it was described as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation.”1
Now, over two decades later, building a strong company culture is regarded as key to a business’s ability to succeed. Not surprisingly, the descriptions and details of the definition have expanded and changed. But the following quote from management guru Peter Drucker on the value of culture still seems to hold: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”2
So, what can a company do when the building blocks of corporate culture – meetings between individuals and groups, personal connections made informally at the water cooler, formal corporate events where employees can socialize with management – are no longer possible? How can you maintain a culture when many, perhaps most, of your employees are physically absent and even those on site have to obey social distancing requirements that include wearing a mask?
Why corporate culture matters.
A recent survey by Net Impact found that 88 percent of workers interviewed considered a positive culture an essential component of their “dream job”.1 Another study conducted by Deloitte found that “94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success.”2
Perhaps this is because culture touches on everything a company and its employees do. This includes not only its mission but its vision of what it hopes to achieve in the future. These are the elements that drive hiring decisions and the definition of success internally and externally. Taken together, all of these things reflect an organization’s values and its priorities. Is making a profit more important than producing quality products? Is innovation more valued than implementation? Is the satisfaction of customers and the well-being of employees more important than dividends for stockholders or vice versa? The answers to these questions can determine how consumers, vendors, competitors, and investors view a brand, and why top level candidates either seek or don’t seek employment in a given company.
Different culture types impact and are impacted by office configurations.
According to Peter Marsh, Vice President of Workplace Strategies Inc., which specializes in helping companies determine the best work space to support their culture, there are four different types of company culture. Based on this concept, he’s created a client tool that he calls the “Competing Values Framework.”3 The Framework is a circle consisting of four quadrants – each represented by a verb that defines the main motivator for success of that cultural type. These types are: Collaborate, Create, Control, and Compete.
If companies wish to change their culture, they should first consider which quadrant they currently occupy and what aspects of their culture they want to improve.
A Control Culture is probably the model most familiar to those in corporate life. It’s grounded in the goal of “doing things right” and has developed a series of internal protocols and processes to ensure that this happens. The hallmark of a controlling culture is corner offices occupied by those in power with long corridors of closed offices or cubicles for lower echelon employees. Each space ensures the privacy – and a certain level of territorial control – by the occupant. Collaboration can take place in these spaces if one worker visits another. But even then, they meet as “visitor” and “host” rather than as equals.
In contrast, a Collaborative Culture breaks down barriers between workers so they can work together more easily. The focus is on encouraging a team approach to problem solving and innovation so there are more group areas and fewer individual work stations. Team building exercises and activities are a regular element of office life, and management tries to involve as many people as they can in decision making.
The next quadrant in the framework is the Creative Culture. The motivation for this cultural type is to distinguish itself from external competitors through individuality and creativity. Experimentation and unique approaches to problem solving are encouraged and rewarded internally. The layout allows work spaces to be changed easily, encouraging employees to work in teams, groups, or individually as needed.
Finally, there’s the Compete Culture, where workers are focused on producing tangible and measurable results both individually and in collaboration with their peers. Private areas are needed here for concentrated effort, but there are also spaces allowing groups to share ideas and resolve problems collectively.
While most company cultures still fall within this framework, Covid-19 has profoundly changed the way work gets done in all four quadrants. People no longer work in cubicles as they used to. Group meetings are limited to a certain number. Collaborative meetings within the same physical space are few. Furthermore, apart from the Pandemic, other social changes are impacting culture in their own way.
Here’s a brief overview of these other elements and how they affect culture:
It’s more than a logo and a tagline. It’s everything that your business touches and is touched by. What colors you use in the lobby, what the reception desk looks like, how employees answer their phones. In short, your brand is your culture and your culture is your brand. As Damon Josue, principal of 7 Hills Advisors, sees it, “Companies are highly focused on brand. Brand sells. Brand is about who you are, what makes you unique. You want your employees and clients to always be reminded of what your organization is about. It completes the sale.”3
Today, brand not only includes how you protect your employees and customers from Covid-19, but also how your business reacts to calls for social and political change. One of these areas where businesses can participate, or even take the lead, is in creating a more diverse work force.
Diversity is a word that causes a lot of conversation, yet all too many businesses seem to find it difficult to make it part of their culture. In fact, actively encouraging diversity in hiring is extremely important to the present and future prosperity of any business. In a study by McKinsey & Company, the practice of gender and ethnic diversity was shown to have a direct correlation to a company’s profitability.4
Physical location of offices immediately impacts the ability of a company to attract and sustain a diverse work force. For example, suburban office campuses tend to attract more white, middle-class, and college-educated candidates than those representing an ethnically mixed population. Urban areas, on the other hand, are not only more likely to have a heterogeneous talent pool, but also are often centers of education where the next generation of workers from which will come.
How people get to the office has another big impact on culture. If they drive, they have to contend with the stress of traveling in rush hour or finding a route via public transportation. (Another advantage to locating offices in urban areas is that public transit choices are more accessible.) Millennials are particularly averse to long commutes and will see the time it takes to get to work as a major factor in their decision about where to work.4
The factors described above are part of the normal and expected evolution of a technology-driven society. But there are other elements affecting cultures that currently are primarily driven by the pandemic and the reaction to it by governments, businesses, consumers, and employees.
Accommodating social distancing.
As noted above, the pandemic has created an awareness of corporate responsibility for the physical well-being of employees and consumers in almost every industry. This goes far beyond making sure there are sprinkler systems in the ceiling and that machines, tools, and work spaces are in good repair. These days hallways have to be wide enough to allow at least two people to walk with six to ten feet in between them. Desks must be clear of personal items to allow for continual and easy cleaning. Touchless entries for restrooms and elevators are being installed to reduce the need to touch shared surfaces. Some companies even offer employees weekly Zoom meetings with doctors on Covid-19 updates.
For some, these changes are a reminder of illness and, therefore, a cause for a depressed and negative outlook. Others, however, have a more optimistic view. Mark Spector, a fellow of the American institute of Architects, suggests that we consider these changes as “safe, not sad,” with the goal being to create a work space focused on ensuring health rather than physical togetherness.5
There is also the issue of how a culture defines a successful balance between work and private life. This has always been an important issue, particularly to people with young families, but the pandemic has increased confusion in this area immeasurably, and in many ways.
Even before COVID, cell phones, laptops, the ability to talk to someone face-to-face or voice-to-voice at any time from almost anywhere, produced a sense of confusion regarding where work stops and the rest of our life begins. Pre-pandemic you could leave the physical office behind at the end of your work day to engage with family and friends at home. Today, though, people who normally work in an office are working at home. Sometimes in their pajamas while dealing with children who demand their attention during business meetings. There is essentially no separation between work-time and off hours. Although working from home allows for more individualized schedules, it also creates a sense that work NEVER stops but is just interrupted by meals, family, and household chores. Women employees in particular feel the strain.
Michelle Penelope King, an expert on gender equality, suggests that these conditions demand that “Leaders are going to have to lean into the vulnerability and create space so people can innovate and grow.” King concludes, “this will demand transformational leaders who get input from a diverse group of managers and workers.”5
Extending office culture into the rest of workers’ lives.
Hopefully, the deadly impact of Covid-19 and its variants will eventually be controlled by vaccinations and modified social behavior. But the virus’s impact on corporate culture will probably continue for years, if not decades. Even when the danger of the disease begins to wane and employees start returning to the office, life as we knew it before March, 2020 will not return.
Mark Spector, who also heads up the architectural firm Spector group, notes that companies will not be able to have all of their employees return at the same time. Instead, they’ll come back in teams or perhaps staggered in increments, with up to only 25 percent of the workforce on site at a time. He also notes, “It will be important to extend the office culture into the work-from-home culture.” He proposes that managers do this by setting up periodic casual Zoom visits to check in with people to see how they’re doing. Or even getting creative and staging Zoom birthday parties and other team-building events companies used to host pre-Covid.5
Tracy Keogh, CHRO at Hewlett-Packard, agrees with Spector. As she sees it, extending the company culture into employees’ virtual world is an opportunity to build stronger relationships between employees and management. She advises managers to make the best of these changes. “If you don’t,” she cautions, “you are really missing an opportunity. . . to lead through a crisis and connect with your people. This is the most authentic time in business history.”5
One thing is certain. As the authors of “Want Great Company Culture? Rethink Your Office Design.” put it, “The quest for the perfect company culture is an ongoing mission. . .” 3 Clearly, businesses in every industry are going to have make change and adaptation to new trends part of their company culture if they hope to survive, let alone thrive.
Michael Alter is President of Alter, a national corporate real estate development firm and Principal Owner of the Chicago Sky.
1Heiple, Stephanie, “Organizational Culture Implications on Office Design and Employee Performance,” FMJ, https://www.fmlink.com/articles/organizational-culture-implications-on-office-design-and-employee-performance/
2Wagner, Julie, “How office design can catalyze an innovative culture,” Brookings, October, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/metropolitan-revolution/2016/10/28/how-office-design-can-catalyze-an-innovative-culture/
3New Day Office, “Want Great Company Culture? Rethink Your Office Design.” https://www.newdayoffice.com/blog/want-great-company-culture-rethink-your-office-design
4Mazur, Jeff, “You Might Be Overlooking One Unexpected Factor About Your Company’s Diversity: Location, Entrepreneur Sept, 2018, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/320776
5Geller, Jen and deLeon, Riley, “How post-pandemic office spaces could change corporate culture.” CNBC Workforce Wire, May, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/18/how-post-pandemic-office-spaces-could-change-corporate-culture.html