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Building remote digital practices & managing cultural change, lessons from the data

This blog was originally published on the blog, in late 2020 following my research and insights from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Laurie Parma, Behavioural Scientist and Temporall’s Head of Labs, discusses how leaders can maintain culture away from the office as the world continues to change around us and we move to a remote-first era.

Work is central to many people’s lives - it can be our livelihoods, passion projects, social life, legacy and pathway through adulthood. But the pandemic has drastically changed the way we engage with work. What we’ve come to know as working life and the human relationships that are integral to this is being challenged by the Covid-19 pandemic and we’re living through arguably the greatest shift to the way we work in history.

How we work has changed forever - are we adapting to the best of our abilities and with well-being in mind? Or what’s changing?

Remote work has certainly become the norm throughout the pandemic and this is one of the trends that looks set to stick in the future. Of course, this change has the potential to benefit many employees with flexible working opportunities, a better work-life balance, shorter commutes and less geographic exclusion from roles. However the downsides could be hugely detrimental to people’s well-being, and therefore the way we work and the organisations we work for.

For many of us, our contract hasn’t changed and expected hours remain the same but the lack of distinction between work and personal life means that there is an overriding feeling of ‘I can always do more’. With no defined end to the day, no 5pm ritual, no commute home to wind down or after work social, the line is blurred - and some would say invisible. This is unsustainable. The loss of routine and human-relation can incite a greater feeling of distance and isolation, and despondency will eventually set in.

Remote work has also impacted relationships with leadership teams. Without the ability to ‘walk the floor’ and define hierarchical status, there can be a tendency for employers to overcompensate and ask for more from their people. This is understandable because you have reduced visibility of what's happening in your organisation, how work is getting done and the conversations that may be circulating around your functions - so you choose to appear more ‘there’; more in control with more frequent meetings. And while this may mean that some people are more productive - McKinsey found that 80% of people enjoy working from home, 41% feel more productive than before and 28% are as productive - we need to question if this is just short term perks and subject to the novelty of working from home.

Where is the culture?

While there are operational and financial dimensions to your future of work strategy, the area that is most important – yet often overlooked – is the cultural dimension. This dimension is now more critical than ever. What used to live in the walls of the organisation is now fading and going through a digital acceleration of its own.

New digital cultures with emerging patterns of interaction, forms of etiquette and communication are rapidly developing amongst organisations across the globe. We are in a unique position to reshape the culture while new digital behaviours are still fresh and malleable. New behaviours and ways of working that are developing now will stay overt and explicitly practiced out loud, and remain changeable while people ‘figure it out’. Once practices become familiar and have been sufficiently repeated, they drop out of awareness and become just one more habit.

The risk here is that the ways of working, which are about to be deeply embedded in the culture, are the result of passive or accidental adoption. If we let ourselves gradually adopt the path of least resistance, we will have to manage the ensuing performance. The opportunity is to be fully intentional in the trials and errors of the future of work and culture we are shaping right now. Leadership teams need to understand, nurture and harness this culture to articulate any successful reimagination for the future of work.

A new digital culture

It’s said that an organisation’s culture is formed by the first 10 hires - however that was before the pandemic. Organisational cultures are being turned on their head and office perks like bean bag chairs, nap rooms and pizza Friday are no longer overt symbols of what some consider a good culture. These materialistic cliches are now redundant and true undeclared agreements and patterns are being exposed. Leaders must use this period of transition from office-based organisations to remote digital ones like they are setting up a new organisation and simultaneously work to build the foundations for a new digital culture.

But in a distributed organisation, the opportunities for leadership teams to nurture culture are rare. You don’t have the benefit of quick, casual catch-ups or the chance to showcase values through tacit communications. Instead, these touch points have to be scheduled meetings drafted into calendars, which breeds a sense of formalisation.

The consequences of these limited and mostly virtual interactions is that each one has a heightened importance. They are the only signal that give people insights about the organisation’s direction, help people construct meaning to their work and feel connected to colleagues. Each video or phone call, email thread or DM drives knowledge of who we are, where we are going, what we are striving for - even if that isn’t the intention. Trust in each other, leadership and the organisation as a whole is based on these interactions and therefore authenticity is primordial.

The most important element for leaders: trust

Trust is paramount in your organisational culture. This is particularly true during the pandemic, where based on the data we’re seeing, what used to be benign leadership behaviour has now taken on new levels of visibility and a heightened sense of importance. More generally, distributed workforces are set to dominate the market landscape and uncertainty - for health, job security, ability to travel and socialise - is rife. Leaders must therefore work to intentionally build trusting networks across the organisation and ensure this is a common value. In fact a recent report by Accenture highlights that trust could well be the new currency.

Imagine as a leader that your trust pool is a jar of marbles. Everything you do can either see marbles added or removed from the jar, depending on whether it makes people trust you or not. As you reimagine your future of work space, every action you display: your behaviour, attitude, choice of communication, feedback and so on, suddenly speaks volumes and sets the tone for future expectations in the digital organisation. You must understand the trust-value of each choice you make and remember that by showing trust in your workforce, they will trust in you too.

How can you do it?

Before you develop a culture strategy, you need to gain real-time clarity on your organisation. Temporall leads the Organisational Intelligence industry and we use Workbench, our A.I.-powered platform to enhance your ability to view, understand and respond to the inner workings of your organisation - in real-time. The data-driven insights, combined with the expertise of Labs, ensure that you have an unparalleled picture of your organisation and can drive a high-performing culture to support your reimagination for the future of work.


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