The challenge organizations face during this pandemic is how to proactively make policy changes that allow them to adapt but also maintain their culture. Yet many organizations are finding that the crisis is changing them. Defining, promoting, maintaining and protecting culture are signature roles of the CEO. Culture defines the way people in an organization should behave based on shared beliefs and values that are established and reinforced by leaders over time. Organizational culture also sets the context for all decision-making, including those that need to be made during a crisis.
Culture Clarified And Strengthened
There are organizations that have seized on the crisis as an opportunity to make their values better understood. I coach employees at a computer technology company where the CEO and senior team began to talk to other leaders about the behaviours they wanted to see. They call it a form of “human transformation.” They made a compelling invitation at the start of the pandemic to their leaders and managers to show greater empathy and lead with humanity, generosity, kindness and humility at this time because none of them knows for sure what it is people are dealing with. The leaders I’m working with are doing what they can to soften their approach, which is helped by the fact that this is a continuance and a strengthening of the business’s cultural values.
Museums are adapting in interesting ways. They are public institutions that we visit to participate in what they have to offer. And for many museums, especially in cities, they serve as community hubs, albeit ones that house humanity’s ideas and conversations with itself. Close to home, the Art Gallery of Ontario received donor funding to keep everyone employed without layoffs, and the staff took a 25% cut in pay. What’s notable is that this hasn’t always been the solution in the past when the budget for staffing was short, but to their credit, this is how they are managing the situation today. Further, concerned about its staff, museum leaders have been addressing self-isolating at home while the building is closed with a newly created “Learning U.” Staff are asked to group together to learn from their own educators and from the catalogue of Coursera and connect twice a day virtually to share their learning and elevate each other’s spirits. The museum director refers to this as a means of keeping staff “whole” while they are self-isolating.
Accelerated Cultural Change
A culture can change for the better in unusual times. Recently, I listened to a female senior executive in the entertainment industry explain how, for years, she had asked to work from home one day a week because of her young family and that she was refused. The argument was that executives had to be located in the office building if they were going to be productive. The punchline is that she and the rest of the company are all now at home delivering flat out at least five days a week. This crisis is also accelerating cultural change. It may have been unexpected and achieved overnight, but the longer the crisis lasts, the more likely these new ways of working will imbed themselves.
Cultures exist inter-professionally too, of course. In health science research, where the culture is persistently alpha competitive, ambitious scientists compete for scarce funds to be published in far too few stellar journals, with unflinching deadlines, and undergo rigorous peer reviews that can be nasty business. As one educator wrote, the pressures toward research and university excellence has created “a culture in which the mental health of researchers is compromised and discriminatory behaviours are overlooked, and then embedded in research practice.” Naturally, the normal pressures have eased at this time, a lot of research and publishing has been suspended, and everyone affected is noticing what could be possible. They had long been saying that the processes were cruel and unsustainable, but it took a pandemic to make fraternity and humanity visible in what has been an unbending system. Researchers are hoping that the changes they see will go beyond the temporary and yield a full rethink of the entire science publishing system.
The opportunity to strengthen work cultures for the better is happening right now, brought on by the crisis. More than our requirement to connect, there is something that’s hanging in the balance. It’s the fear and dread of the strain that physical distancing is causing on our work culture by keeping us apart. How organizations respond to this challenge will change cultures in ways that are both planned and unplanned.
This article was first published on Forbes.com. Thank you to Pawel Czerwin for the image.