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Caroline Walsh


Vice President, Team Manager

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Culture change in the coronavirus era is about ‘meteorology’, not ‘archaeology’

In times of cultural uncertainty, it’s our job to come up with the forecast.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect the global economy at unprecedented levels, several leading business commentators have suggested the outbreak could fundamentally change the way we approach work moving forward.

With employees not having seen their desks for months – and governments warning that some social distancing measures may be in place for years until a vaccine is widely disseminated – remote working is now destined to be the norm.

 We often look at culture as ‘archaeologists’, looking back through a company’s history to determine the next steps to take, when in fact we should be approaching culture as ‘meteorologists’, looking to the company’s future for guidance.

With the increasing normality of remote working, many HR leaders are scrambling to parachute in new workplace culture initiatives, in a bid to keep employees engaged and shore up some sense of team cohesion. Some employers are reaching for wholesale culture changes – seeking to position their employer brand at the vanguard of the ‘next normal’, in which employee concerns over mental wellbeing and flexible working take precedence.

Many organisations approach culture change the wrong way, however. Research from Gartner has shown that HR leaders often misguidedly base their culture change initiatives on incorrect questions or assumptions, leading to issues that become difficult to undo down the line. There are key steps that need to be taken by businesses in developing their strategies.  

Culture as ‘meteorology’, not ‘archaeology’

One of the most frequent missteps made by HR leaders is to set cultural objectives, without tying their goals to the future needs of the business. For example, many organisations seek a ‘culture of innovation’, but don’t tie this to real business strategies such as pursuing new business ideas, transforming processes, or driving efficiencies with new technology.

Fundamentally, HR leaders are approaching the issue of culture change with the wrong perspective. We often look at culture as ‘archaeologists’, looking back through a company’s history to determine the next steps to take, when in fact we should be approaching culture as ‘meteorologists’, looking to the company’s future for guidance and forecasting what the atmosphere will be like.

When we measure culture, we need to not only collect the right data, but also ensure that we make changes or improvements based on that information.

Instead of asking ‘what should my organisation’s culture be?’, employers should ask themselves how their culture goals will support the future state of the business.

In a pragmatic sense, HR leaders should first assess the set of goals that their current culture delivers on. This may be in the successful development of self-sustaining teams, or increasing cross-practice collaboration. Following this, they should then examine the goals needed to support their future organisation.

In practice, this could be guiding an organisation’s culture of innovation by encouraging employees to generate new business ideas that could shape the very products and services of the future. By yoking their cultural goals to an image of the organisation’s future success, HR leaders can drive employee incentives, nurturing behaviour among workers that can directly improve the business.

Prepare for – and embrace – personalisation

It may be tempting – particularly as organisations shift to more remote work – to drive for a single, unifying culture. A single ‘monoculture’ is not realistic across most organisations, however. Employees should be encouraged to understand the values the organisation is aiming for, but each team should contextualise how it can live out the culture – adapting overall cultural pillars to their way of working.

One global non-profit organisation defined its culture through a simple ‘do’s and don’ts’ tool, encouraging teams across the organisation to customise behaviour expectations to guide employees during the high-stakes moments most likely to test their cultural alignment.

To ensure relevancy, HR leaders turned the central list of culture pillars into a scalable and customisable tool for teams to define behaviour expectations. This business driven approach enabled that company to promote firm-wide culture alignment while helping teams articulate the right behavioural expectations specific to their goals.

The measurement misstep and how to avoid it

Another frequent misstep made by HR leaders is in the ‘measurement’ of culture. Particularly in an era of crisis, as we are in now, employers are often clutching at any tools that might help provide a snapshot of their employees’ loyalty, enthusiasm, and trust in their organisation.

Often clients ask for more when it comes to measurement – more tools, more surveys, more analysis. Unfortunately, collecting more data isn’t realistic during this time of change when HR cost cutting is a top priority and employees experience survey fatigue. Culture measurement must be a process of continual engagement and dialogue with your workforce to empower your managers and teams to take action on data.

Fundamentally, when we measure culture, we need to not only collect the right data, but also ensure that we make changes or improvements based on that information. Instead of focusing on more data, HR leaders can take action on culture data in three ways.

First, HR leaders can validate the culture data’s relevance to the organisation. Cross-functional and employee perspectives can help interpret the culture data. Second, not all data aligns with business needs. HR leaders not only need to analyse which parts of the culture data to take action on, but also map culture data back to key business decisions. Finally, HR leaders must consider how to hold leaders accountable for taking action on culture data within their business units. Often leaders don’t know what they should do with the culture data they receive, so HR leaders must equip leaders with business-tested action steps to advance their culture.

Culture in remote workplaces

Of course, the process of trying to manage a culture change in a business is complicated by the fact that vast numbers of employees are working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, and HR teams are not able to address culture concerns in person.

It is a challenge that will remain in place for a long time, however. According to research from Gartner, 41% of employees are likely to work remotely at least some of the time post-pandemic. Meanwhile, Barclays CEO Jes Staley recently suggested the practice of “putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”.

As businesses try to navigate a period of unprecedented uncertainty, it is vital that HR teams push ahead with planning for culture change initiatives. There are a number of ways this can be handled virtually, including engaging employee resource groups to diagnose employee sentiments, working with managers and business leaders to stimulate honest, open conversations with employees, and leveraging the vast array of new collaboration tools available.

Employees across all organisations are experiencing feelings of stress, anxiety and isolation across both their personal and working lives during the current pandemic, and many are looking to their employers and HR teams to provide structure, stability, and purpose. The businesses who oversee a positive culture during these times will be rewarded with trust, loyalty, and engagement from their employees long-term.

Interested in this topic? Read The remote revolution: how working from home is changing company culture.

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Caroline Walsh

Vice President, Team Manager

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