TopIC Thumbnail - Inclusion in isolation. Are some workplace cultures more at risk of loneliness?
22nd May 2020
3 Min Read

Inclusion in isolation. Are some workplace cultures more at risk of loneliness?

Culture & Insights

Thinking about the topic of loneliness, I was drawn to Lisa Hawksworth’s work around culture for this month’s World Changers deep-dive.

To help organisations better understand how to engage and motivate their employees, Lisa helps surface their dominant culture; a set of traits and characteristics which shape and determine the way their people act, interact, learn and collaborate.

I wondered what the different traits could reveal about creating a more inclusive experience while we’re all working remotely, where the loneliness pitfalls are in different workplace cultures and how it can be tackled.

Breaking down the four dominant cultures, Lisa summarises:

  • Fire cultures respond to spontaneous social opportunities. They’re likely to be start-ups or entrepreneurial organisations
  • Water cultures are customer-focused and respond well to competition. This could include professional services organisations, or those that are innovative, project-based and delivery-focused
  • Air cultures are filled with independent thinkers. They can be brought together by expertise – such as teaching or research in universities, or the consultancy side of the health service
  • Earth cultures like structure. They’re driven by rules and are most likely to be large, siloed organisations.

Different cultures present different interpersonal challenges. And, placed under the extreme situation we’ve found ourselves in over the past few months, many traits can become heightened, which can lead to moments of cohesion, or conflict.

So, what should we be looking for and how can we mitigate some of the problems?

Fuelling a fire culture

Fire cultures typically move fast. Their dynamic, agile and motivated way of working constantly seeks out new opportunities and never stays still. But the culture can be cliquey, and it can be hard for some to keep up.

Working remotely can intensify this, leading to feelings of loneliness and anxiety in those who feel left behind as the pace intensifies.

Fire cultures thrive with a strong leader that colleagues can look up to. So leadership that can recognise and unify people can go a long way to tackling feelings of loneliness and isolation in the team. When it comes to productivity and projects, it can also help to arrange check-in points along the way to make sure everyone is not only up to speed, but feeling valued and included, too.

The same applies from a social perspective. Build in social events such as virtual pub quizzes. These can be optional, but have the opportunity to include everyone.

Helping water cultures go with the flow

Water cultures are flexible but feel frustrated by rules and process which is seen to slow progress. The greatest motivation in a water culture comes from competition and customer centricity as colleagues look to experts for solutions.

While agility can be a strength, it can also be a problem. The pace and demand for the next task means there isn’t time to develop deep expertise. This can lead to feelings of imposter syndrome and uncertainty, which are felt more keenly while working remotely as less tactile communication cannot provide as much reassurance to employees.

To tackle loneliness in a water culture, create spaces and moments for creativity and problem solving. Bring people together by giving them opportunities to contribute to solving problems, either related to work, or even internally, and recognise their contributions.

How air cultures can breeze through

Rather than utilise a strict hierarchy, an air culture team is the sum of its individual experts, all self-motivated with independent goals. Air cultures are autonomous, but what brings them together is purpose.

By their very nature, air cultures are less unified as a team. Each colleague is like an island, which in times of remote working, can intensify a feeling of loneliness without a physical environment which allows people to check in and catch up.

Tackle this by bringing everyone together to share their experiences and learn from one another. And tie this back to the bigger purpose – a motivational touchstone for air cultures. And if bringing the whole organisation together feels overwhelming to a culture of individuals, break it down by providing smaller, more focussed community groups online each with a specific purpose, such as running club, new mums or film recommendations.

Down to earth culture

Earth cultures are methodical, logical and hierarchical. They thrive with structure, routine and clear direction, all of which will have been disrupted during the last few months.

Slower to adapt than other cultures and dependent on seniority, frustration comes when remote working presents barriers to the usual ways of working.

Struggling to deliver may lead to feelings of anxiety, and in turn loneliness, where individuals may feel they need to battle through the situation alone.

Tackle this by reinforcing the strength of the team. Make your leaders visible to achieve this, organise large (virtual) group events and build in extra time to bring people together to co-create solutions.

The common thread that runs across all cultures – and something which has never been more than in our current situation – is the need for internal comms and HR to really listen. Make use of your measurement, both quantitative and qualitative, to surface the issues, anxieties and problems your people are facing. Pair your learnings with a strong understanding of your cultural traits to help your people thrive.

What’s the dominant culture in your organisation? And how can you use that knowledge to support your people in the months ahead?

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