Sustaining culture on virtual teams

Sustaining culture on virtual teams

Many organizations that pivoted to work-from-home at the start of the pandemic, thinking it was a short-term necessity, are now looking at remote work as a long-term, even permanent, state of affairs. As such, they are searching for ways to get out of survival mode into a more sustainable mindset.

Culture plays a big role in this experience for employees. In a recent webinar and article for the MIT Sloan Management Review, organizational culture researcher Jennifer Howard-Grenville discussed strategies for addressing culture when everyone is working remotely. Companies must

  1. understand their culture, including what is core and what is peripheral,
  2. see how virtual work is stressing or changing that culture, and
  3. make a plan for keeping culture conversations top-of-mind.

The first step—not an easy one—is to understand what organizational culture is and what it isn’t. In their research on the disconnect between company practices and corporate values, Donald Sull, Stefano Turconi, and Charles Sull note that “there are more than 50 distinct definitions in the academic literature” of corporate culture.

Values statements and foosball tables are not culture

Let’s start with a couple of things that often get mistaken for culture, but are something different.

Values statements are not culture. Howard-Grenville says that values are important, but often aspirational and “frankly quite generic.” She points to Sull, et al.’s research showing that 65% of companies listed “integrity” as a value. But what does that mean in the day-to-day life of a specific company and its people?

Foosball tables are not culture. When people think about organizational culture in the abstract, says Howard-Grenville, they may first think of things like open office plans, the favorite neighborhood lunch spot, or the “good old foosball table”– that stereotypical symbol of Silicon Valley startups. Howard-Grenville argues that these are not actually culture itself, but “surface manifestations,” or what MIT professor Edgar H. Schein would call “artifacts of culture.”

So, what is culture?

In his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar R. Schein attempts what he terms a “dynamic definition” of culture:

“The culture of a group can be defined as the accumulated shared learning of that group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration; which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, feel, and behave in relation to those problems.”

Culture is often invisible

Schein continues his definition:

“This accumulated learning is a pattern or system of beliefs, values, and behavioral norms that come to be taken for granted as basic assumptions and eventually drop out of awareness.”

Howard-Grenville agrees that we “often only recognize it when we step outside it.” Culture is the water your employees swim through.

Culture is a system of practices and beliefs

Howard-Grenville encourages observing your company’s culture as an anthropologist might. What daily behaviors do you see, and what choices? If an anthropologist with no knowledge of your culture observed the actions of your team for a week, what would her conclusions be about why they were doing the things they do?

Howard-Grenville argues that practices should be tied to meaning, illustrating this by showing practices and beliefs in a reinforcing cycle. She believes the transition to online work is creating breaks in this cycle.

Jennifer Howard-Grenville's cycle of practices and beliefs. Jennifer Howard-Grenville's cycle of practices and beliefs, showing breaks in the cycle.

Culture is a tool kit

Howard-Grenville speaks of organizational culture as a tool kit, a view modeled after anthropologist Ann Swidler. The tool kit is made up of habits and practices, and “knowing how to use a culture’s tools — that is, when and how they apply — is the real mark of belonging to a culture.” This is an important time to pay attention to what new habits are being formed, and which habits are being rewarded.

Culture is shared, not dictated

Howard-Grenville says that even if culture is something seeded by a founder, it is grown by the group. “Culture,” she says, “is how we as a group have grown to make sense of what we’re doing together.” Schein calls culture “a shared product of shared learning.”

Culture is an open system

No matter how much you try to control the culture inside your organization, Howard-Grenville reminds us, it is informed by events happening outside your organization. Events of the world, societal trends, family and community stressors, employees’ volunteer efforts—these are not separate from the culture inside your virtual walls, but rather they filter in, informing the interactions and habits of your employees, and thus your culture.

The cultural challenges of virtual workplaces

Howard-Grenville:

“It turns out that even in today’s world of abundant online collaboration tools, there is often no substitute for copresence when communication, problem-solving, and creativity are called for. In part, this is because as humans, we make sense of the world and our interactions through our body language, emotions, and embodied experiences, all of which are much different in a virtual space.”

Because culture is often invisible, it strengthens through our observation of it. We have less opportunity to observe (consciously and subconsciously) how culture manifests when we’re alone at our kitchen table all day.

Howard-Grenville breaks down the different cultural challenges a company might face when moving from in-person to remote work:

  • For individuals: socialization and belonging. Any employee may suffer from the loss of camaraderie an office can provide, but onboarding new team members is particularly difficult in this environment. When you join a new culture, you often learn that culture by being surrounded by your peers over time.
  • For groups: cohesion and performance. In Howard Grenville’s observations during this shift, she has seen that groups who use lively debates to come to solutions are really struggling to recreate that in video meetings. “How many of you have had a truly vigorous debate over Zoom?” she asks.
  • For organizations: productivity and inclusion. Howard-Grenville observes that companies may be feeling this less than the other two, but that this challenge will grow in the long run, especially around innovation and creativity. She asks, “How do you reproduce the effects of serendipity online?”

How to sustain culture while working remotely

Organizations can use the sudden break from physical space as an opportunity to view culture as an outsider again, to play the anthropologist.

Take your culture’s temperature

What makes your culture unique? How is your tool kit different from others in your industry? Who gets ahead in your organization and how do they do things? Howard-Grenville doesn’t think surveys are a good way to get a sense of your cultural health, preferring qualitative methods like story gathering. Ask your employees to share situations where an action or decision felt particularly informed by culture, by “the way we do things.”

A good way to get a fresh view on your culture is to ask and answer the question: What would a newcomer need to know to operate in this organization?

Make culture visible

At a time when employees may feel unsure of what the organization’s culture is, since they’re not seeing it every day in the same way, it is helpful to point it out. Be explicit about when you see it in action, and when you see something that goes against it. Try to move from the abstract to the concrete, focusing on behaviors rather than ideas.

Maybe a decision is arrived at after gathering many different perspectives. When discussing the decision, also discuss how the process reflects your organization’s culture of inquiry and collaboration. Or perhaps someone steps up to complete a project for a coworker dealing with a family emergency. Remind your team how important teamwork and flexibility are to your culture. If you set up a new system to triage customer calls while people are working from home, why was it set up in that way and what does that say about the role of customer service in your culture?

Discuss what is core and what is peripheral

The core of your culture are the elements that “cannot be changed without changing the group altogether,” Schein says. Your cultural DNA. He offers this metaphor: “Culture is both stable and dynamic, just as our body is stable if we think of the skeleton and skin and organs but constantly changing if we think of cells and the various bodily processes.”

Think about how you can strengthen your cultural core while reevaluating its more peripheral aspects. The goal, says Howard-Grenville, is to help employees “navigate the current environment in a way that is authentic to the organization’s history yet flexible to the realities we all face.” She urges us all to “be honest about which practices are undermining the change we want to make.”

Modify your cultural tool kit

When you think of culture as a tool kit rather than a single entity, you are able to choose the right tool for the right moment. You realize you have many options to call upon, and that some tools will begin to be more heavily used, while others—while still available if you need them—become less useful for the task and times at hand.

Howard-Grenville shares the example that because of the strains of this year, many people are getting more involved in volunteer work or helping vulnerable folks in their communities in some way. This shifting focus may very well show up at work, too, where tools in the cultural tool kit having to do with justice and ethics become more important to the group.

DiSC as part of the solution

Group Culture Reports

Running an Everything DiSC Group Culture Report for your team is a great way to gain understanding into some of those invisible forces shaping your culture. This 13-page report gives you insight into why certain people may feel pressures others don’t, or find more or less success adapting to the overarching culture.

The Group Culture Report helps you determine and explore the advantages and disadvantages of your group’s DiSC culture, discuss its effect on group members, and examine its influence on decision-making and risk-taking. Learn more about Group Culture Reports and how DiSC styles work on the group level.

Catalyst

The new Catalyst platform for Everything DiSC is all about strengthening workplace culture through ongoing learning and conversation. Using DiSC to ground your discussions on culture gives people a common language, making it safe to offer concerns as reflections on styles rather than as complaints. Catalyst shows personalized tips for working with each person in your organization, such as how to give feedback or keep momentum going on a project. It is a way to surface the values and norms of your group, making it easier to see and discuss “the water you swim in” – your unseen culture.

“It was never about the watercooler anyway”

Howard-Grenville offers this conclusion:

“It may be a long time until many white-collar workers see their offices and gather with peers around the proverbial watercooler, but we can remind ourselves that it was never about the watercooler anyway. Culture is ultimately about the actions we take and make visible to others, and the meanings we invest in those — which is harder, but not impossible, to maintain from the kitchen table.”

Culture is not the sole responsibility of executives or HR. Culture is everyone’s business, and everyone’s responsibility. What actions are you taking to discover and explore your organization’s culture, and understand how it is changing with remote work?

 

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by Jessica Franken

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