Workplace Culture is Essential in the Safe Return to Work – Here’s Why

  • December 07, 2021
Group of happy people at work

In August, my colleague Brian Marranzini talked about a three-pronged approach to making the return to the office safe and seamless. Specifically, he called out these three interrelated elements — physical, technological, and cultural — and focused on the technological. I want to explore how the physical and cultural elements contribute to a seamless workplace transition.

First, the physical. Organizations continue to actively reconfigure physical space at work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before COVID-19, approximately 7% of U.S. employees worked from home. During the pandemic, this number rose astronomically, with about two-thirds of Americans working remotely. Megacorporations are reportedly opting out of in-office spaces to maintain work-from-home setups. For example, in 2020, Pinterest paid $89.5 million to terminate a deal to move into a 500,000 square feet office space, and Twitter began subleasing the company’s 100,000 square-foot San Francisco office space. Other companies, such as Microsoft and Google, have invested in their real estate, undertaking extensive renovation projects to create physical spaces that are custom-fit to the needs of the teams using them. They view physical office space as just another tool to enhance productivity. Many, if not most, organizations are somewhere in the middle — decreasing some square footage but waiting to see what happens next.

The Great Experiment (as I’ve been calling it) will not resolve itself quickly but will take several cycles of trial and error. Organizations must experiment with various combinations of physical space and emerging technologies to get it right. To “get it right” means to find models that work well for different types of work and workers in each organization. There is no one solution for an industry or an organization.

This brings us to the cultural element. The last twenty months have put a stake through the heart of the previous excuses that employers used to force their employees to work in specific physical spaces. We’ve proven that productivity is not anchored in where we work. Instead, it’s anchored in our work ethic, the connection we have with purpose, and the social capital we have within our teams. It’s also very, very connected to leadership.

Leaders face new dramatic challenges, and the playbook from which most have operated for a long time will no longer help leaders win. A record number of workers quit their job in the third quarter of this year, and many employees would rather leave their current jobs than give up working from home. Flexible work is critical to retention, yet we see news reports of executives prescribing a one-size-fits-all mandate for their workforces every day. Leaders are missing a significant shift — the power has shifted from the command-and-control organizational model to the empowered workforce mainly due to exciting advances in technology. Better tools enable choice and humans like choice. Ignore the shift in the workforce at your peril.

How, then, should we think about organizational culture and its connection to the workplace? There are five angles to ensure your culture is driving the results and outcomes you need:

1. Culture: Culture is deeply rooted in the assumptions about how an organization solves problems and accomplishes work. Cultural norms are the ‘unwritten rules’ about working in your organization. Are people who work in the office treated differently and offered different opportunities than those who work remotely? These unwritten rules tell individuals what is important in your organization and how to succeed. Conduct a pulse check to ensure you understand what messages these invisible currents are carrying. If they’re not what you want them to be, there’s work to be done.

2. Belief: The beliefs at work in your organization drive individual behaviors. Beliefs impact how workers treat each other and how workers treat their customers. What are your customers saying about person-to-person interactions? Your customer satisfaction scores likely mirror your employee satisfaction scores.

3. Behavior: Individual behaviors, the defining element of culture, are driven by the processes, tools, and policies that your organization employs. The fastest way to understand an organization’s culture is to read its policies and examine processes and tools. Are your policies operating under the assumption that employees are well-intentioned, honest, and hard-working? Or that employees need policing? Do your tools and processes support flexible work arrangements, or do they fail to address the ever-growing population of workers who demand flexibility?

4. Operational: Operational norms are another visible indicator of culture. How do employees communicate with each other — both within and across teams and organizational lines? How do problems get solved? Who is empowered, and who waits to be told?

5. Action: Lastly, culture is magnified by the actions of leaders. While culture is a grass-roots construct, people watch their leaders for what is ‘true’ within an organization. Do the policies support a hybrid approach to workspace, but the leader only engages with the people who are in the office? Do your performance objectives measure what gets done but not how?

Building a strong workplace culture is one of the most challenging tasks for organizations and leaders because organizational culture is felt and amplified by unique humans with different perspectives, needs, and experiences. Alignment is the key. Your organization’s values should be visible and recognizable in your culture, and that’s only possible when all elements of your organization are in alignment. While incredibly hard, getting the policies and processes right is easy. It’s walking the talk and demonstrating the right behaviors at all levels of the organization that really challenges leaders.

The pandemic has triggered seismic changes in how we come together to accomplish work from now on. It’s a terrific opportunity for great leaders to lead in new and dynamic ways.

The rapidly changing workforce underscores the need for human-centric, digital-forward solutions for organizations in all industries. Our Workforce Readiness Consulting practice helps drive organizational success with future-focused talent and change strategies. Learn more about how we help our clients thrive at the human side of business.

Read Brian Marranzini’s point of view on how to Make the Return to the workplace Safe and Seamless with help from advanced technologies.

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Kim Curley

Kim Curley has spent her career focused on the human side of business, enabling leaders and their organizations to do more, do better, and to thrive through change. As the Workforce Readiness Consulting Practice Leader for NTT DATA Services, Kim leads advisory consultants who deliver people-side consulting solutions that help our clients solve their most complex business challenges.

Kim is also a founder of Women Inspire NTT DATA, the company’s first employee resource group. She launched the Charlotte Chapter in March 2018, which she continues to lead, and serves as the chair of the global steering committee. She is also a published author and sought-after industry speaker on the topic of human and organizational impacts of automation and other advanced technologies and is the co-lead of the Talent Development Forum of the Executive’s Club of Chicago.

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