Top IC CC Culture
17th Apr 2020
3 Min Read

Coronavirus, lockdown and the impact of remote working on organisational cultures

Lisa Hawksworth
Lisa Hawksworth
Culture & Change

The ongoing Covid-19 lockdown means that the ‘new normal’ working situations we have quickly constructed over the last few weeks are now our continued reality for the short term. While the priority for many has been the practicalities – leading teams remotely, ensuring productivity and maintaining cyber-security – we cannot ignore the longer-term impacts on employees. We predict the impact on organisational culture to be vast.

But what do we mean by culture?

We speak about culture in terms of patterns, flows and symbols: the collective meaning that we attach to the way people behave, the manner in which things are done and the things that we see and feel around us. This collective understanding becomes our definition of culture.

For years, organisations have sought to understand, protect and leverage their cultures. To be ‘the next Google’. To play where they’re strongest. But culture is changing. The way we interact is changing. We’re remote and suddenly more two-dimensional. We’re having new and different experiences. We don’t see and feel the same things. Covid-19 is changing the world, and organisational culture is part of that.

The question is how? And how can you understand what that means for you?

How can you understand culture?

In recent work with our clients we’ve used our cultural diagnostic to explore and understand their culture. This work has helped us to identify cultural strengths and close gaps in their employee experience.

Notably, it’s enabled us to understand the cultural differences between different teams. In cultural research conducted in November 2019, we noticed a stark difference in how those based in offices and how those based predominantly at home or remotely, perceived the organisation’s culture.

"Those based in offices spoke in terms of ‘we’ and ‘them’; a recognition of their collective day-to-day working life. Those based remotely referenced the culture from the perspective of ‘I’; speaking more from personal experience."

How does home working change culture?

Those based in offices spoke in terms of ‘we’ and ‘them’; a recognition of their collective day-to-day working life. Those based remotely referenced the culture from the perspective of ‘I’; speaking more from personal experience.

Surprisingly, remote workers felt more attuned to the way they had to navigate the culture to collaborate and manage activities – they were already very aware of the pitfalls and challenges of not being based with the rest of their team in an office environment. They also recognised the common obstacles: it’s harder to be seen when you’re remote so great work and poor behaviour alike can go under the radar.

For office workers, the converse was true, as behaviour and teamship were highly visible activities, presenteeism was often mistaken for collaboration and hard work. They looked to the current and physical things around them as representations of their culture - the break-out spaces, the meeting rooms, their bank of desks. Remote workers looked back and formed their definition of culture from their experiences and the history of the organisation.

What do we need to do?

These stark differences between remote workers and those who are office-based is not a problem or a hinderance. There are often many different types of culture in a single organisation. The challenge comes where there’s a cultural gap. Where the difference between what employees want and what they get from a culture is at odds.

This matters because whatever our reality was before, it’s not the same now, and it definitely won’t be the same later.

Covid-19 is changing our lives and our cultures. We need to accept that organisational cultures will change, and be on the front foot, ready for that change. We don’t know what our new normal is just yet, but if we begin to explore it now, we can start to get to grips with how our organisational cultures are changing – and to what. And by understanding their cultures, organisations can begin to make meaningful decisions to drive their culture, and their business, forward.

To start exploring and understanding your culture, download our free whitepaper or get in touch with lisa.hawksworth@scarlettabbott.co.uk

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