How do we maintain organisational culture through a screen?

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07.04.21
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In the beginning, enabling an entire workforce to work remotely may have felt a little chaotic but from a technical perspective, most companies coped well and got everyone up and running quickly. But while there may have been some initial excitement about working from home, I have no doubt that the prolonged absence from our workplaces has bruised organisational cultures.

Nearly a third (31%) of employees are doubting themselves in the current climate, and almost half (47%) are feeling isolated. For some employees, whose preference is to work in the office, this lack of contact has resulted in 17% lower productivity.

What about face-to-face interaction? 

At S&S so much of our DNA is in face-to-face interactions — and not just because we’re a change consultancy. Over the last year we’ve had several client engagements where we’ve never met face-to-face, but the thing that’s really hurt us has been our events. Before, we’d worked hard to create a community vibe with The Change Society, hosting regular events after work in the bar at our offices. Similarly, as a team we’re quite a social bunch and regularly used to meet up outside of work.

But all that had to stop.

Yes, the tools are all there to help with remote working and collaboration, but it’s always going to be a poor substitute for the real thing. Everything has to be more structured now, because you need to have the tools set up in advance. It’s not like before when you’d stand up, grab a pen and start brainstorming ideas on the whiteboard — now there’s systems to log into and screens to share.

Face-to-face interaction is fundamentally different to online. We’re all in the same boat, desperately trying to cope with the best of a bad deal, but that doesn’t mean the change isn’t having an impact. According to a study by Buffer, two-thirds (66%) of remote employees admit to struggling with the work-life balance, collaboration, and staying motivated.

I don’t think our team is alone in yearning for the day when we can get back to the office.

How do we return to the office?

During lockdown we got back the time we’d normally spend on the daily commute, which we could split evenly between work and family life. This had a big impact for businesses. Research shows that on average:

But people still crave that human contact.
The majority (94%) of people want to return to the office, with the number one thing they miss being face-to-face time with co-workers. Therefore, it’s likely that blended working, where employees work both in the office and at home, will become common working practice.

Since the very beginning of S&S, we’ve known how important people are to our success. Digital may be fundamental to enabling remote working and collaboration, but to thrive you need to build a community who are really invested in what you’re doing.

Research from the World Economic Forum agrees, showing that more than a third (34%) of leaders are taking steps to create a sense of community among employees. As we emerge from the current crisis, I really believe it’s that sense of community that will strengthen our organisational cultures, and the wider ecosystems we exist within that will rebuild/grow our businesses.

But then there was the big question no-one anticipated about how we run our businesses…

Do we change the hierarchy?

When lockdown struck, teams knew they needed to enable remote working, communicate what was happening to the customers, maintain privacy and compliance…etc. And they just got on and did what was needed.

Very quickly, business leaders saw how capable their teams were of self-organising.

And this has continued throughout the pandemic. Teams have worked with intent, using their initiative to push ahead with business-as-usual in the face of adversity. And the general consensus shows that even with the intense feelings of isolation, people are still productive, collaborative and effective.

In fact, when you look at the people who have struggled most, middle managers were 91% more likely to say they were having trouble working remotely when compared to individuals and senior executives.

But why?

Well in a remote world where teams have proved themselves so incredibly capable of self-organising, it makes the need to schedule work, manage people and fight fires a bit redundant. Which raises the really big question: what is the role for middle management now?

The world has been through an intense period of change over the last 12-months, and as organisations reconsider what’s necessary to their business, and what’s simply nice to have, I expect there will be several difficult or uncomfortable conversations with the board. The crisis will make companies question everything, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some fundamental changes made to business hierarchies.

As one report in Forbes warned middle managers, “Be afraid. Be very much afraid.

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Written by Adrian Stalham