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A discussion on what we learned during Corona and how we can benefit from this time.
co-authored by Alexander Giese
The COVID-19 pandemic turned many things upside down, especially in workplaces. Existing solutions had to be reevaluated and new solutions were needed. In this article, we analyzed how organizational culture can help to react to those changes and how they transformed our way of working together.
The basis for this article was interviews with four experts: Kathrin Pawelke (VP of People & Organization at FinLeap), Hanne Hecker (Head of Product at Ryte), Moritz Pawelke (Partner for Digital Architecture at WTS Advisory), and Matthias Heigl (Head of Product at Jameda). [for further details, see references]
We wanted to find out how the role of culture at work changed due to the pandemic. Which strategies are there to let employees participate? Which developments are valuable for organizations and what have we learned from this time?
- Value the culture. Culture eats strategy for breakfast if it’s not properly aligned with business goals. This effect increased with the pandemic.
- Don’t be afraid to be radically authentic, accountable, and honest. Live by example.
- Improve work(place) design. In remote work environments productivity increases while innovation decreases.
Studies have shown that the pandemic made people reconsider how much of their lifetime they spend at work and whether their job actually aligns with their values. [1, 2] As a response to that, organizations might reevaluate and improve their internal culture so that the employees feel that they can pursue their personal purpose at work. On the one hand, they could use this opportunity to create a better culture that sustainably improves the effectiveness and well-being of the whole organization. On the other, they might want to keep up with competing employers to retain their talents. It should always be a priority for executives, not only because the pandemic might force them to. All of our interviewees stressed that addressing the organizational culture has tremendous potential at all levels of an organization.
At first the basics: What is organizational culture? The culture of an organization is a set of cultural norms that defines ”what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group. When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, they can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive.”  Those norms include rules for everyday work, values, and beliefs. In addition, they can describe traditions or rituals and employee benefits such as career development, sports courses, parental leave, health support, and many more. While all these rules may sound limiting, they exist to empower everyone in the organization. That is why it should combine the management’s intentions with the experience of frontline employees. By doing so the organization improves the atmosphere and well-being of its workers while also improving on business goals.
However, there is no single solution to design a successful culture. Depending on the type of organization and its specific needs different styles might be required. That’s why executives should take their time to understand its power and dynamics. As someone once said, culture eats strategy for breakfast. But “When aligned with [business] strategy and leadership, a strong culture drives positive organizational outcomes.” 
To make sure that the culture strategy makes sense to the employees, the desired characteristics should not be too opposite of each other. A combination of e.g. “results” and “caring” can be rather confusing, because people won’t know whether to strive for outcomes at all costs or to focus on collaboration in the team.  Communicate clearly what the culture’s main objective is and set it apart from the other goals which are at lower priorities.
The possibly most important and overlooked component might be that in order to succeed, an organization’s culture management needs to be flexible. Not only, but especially in times of a pandemic, it has to adapt to rapidly changing challenges. That’s why culture building and maintaining is a long-term commitment. It has to evolve when changing circumstances demand it or when new opportunities arise. 
Know your values
The Pandemic made many employees reassess their priorities and values. An example of that is that in August 2021 about 4.3 million people in the USA quit their jobs, which is about 3% of the US workforce!  The media started calling this phenomenon the “Great Resignation” or probably more precisely the “Great Reflection” or “Great Reshuffle”.  When looking at research about the reasons why people left, it is mostly a poor culture at the workplace. “Leading elements contributing to toxic cultures include failure to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion; workers feeling disrespected; and unethical behavior.”  Employees want a job where they feel fairly treated and that lines up with their personal values. They want to see a purpose in what they are doing. This is why values in your organizational culture are so vital. They help to tackle the loss of talents and combat frustration caused by e.g. chaotic structures with no perspective for improvements.
A strong value set will benefit the whole organization, strengthen productivity, increase innovation, and support employer loyalty. Having a good team of employees does not guarantee great work results. And innovation hardly happens alone. When teams are for example struggling with rivalry and egoism they are unlikely to innovate. It’s the culture among them which enables successful collaboration and drives strong shared outcomes. Supporting employees to bring their authentic selves to work lets them build stronger work relationships. “These more personal interactions have the power to drive inclusion, productivity, and innovation for years to come.” 
A strong set of values can allow you to set yourself apart from competitors if they are not too generic. Already in the recruiting process, they help to find the right talents that fit your organization, to build harmonic teams.
All these values and goals sound great but are absolutely worthless if they are not lived authentically by your people. “Empty values statements create cynical and dispirited employees, alienate customers, and undermine managerial credibility.”  That’s why you need to be ready to invest the time and effort in carefully establishing and continually defending your values. Values initiatives need a long-term commitment.
While the process of shaping organizational culture is a lot about combining perspectives from all levels, it has nothing to do with consensus. Since the business strategy is the base for any value set, the culture has to align with it. If the values and culture do not fit the business strategy, they will block it. “The best values efforts are driven by small teams that include the CEO, any founders who are still with the company, and a handful of key employees.”  Together they develop and iterate the cultural strategy over a couple of months. It is advisable to give the process the necessary time. If rushed, certain decisions might be regretted as some values could turn out to be incompatible with the staff.
There is a difference between an artificial and a cultivated organizational culture. Organizational culture can’t be solely designed by executive decisions but must be lived by example. We need to be role models for the culture we want to have around us — all of us.
HR is supporting the cultivation and should not be leading the initiative. They have to “Design employee experiences that interpret and reinforce the desired culture.”  By organizing e.g. training programs for leaders and developing culture guide books they should enable people to fulfill their cultural responsibilities. Further, they can set up performance management measures, and recognition programs and regularly evaluate the organization’s culture with tracking routines.
As with every role model situation, accountability is key. Only if you are accountable for your values you can inspire. It’s important to note that while the hierarchy of an organization plays a part in the social structure, it’s not a must. Find out which people are seen as role models within the team(s) and get them on board.
During the pandemic, organizations were reminded how essential it is to include as many perspectives as possible when creating new strategies. More and more people are demanding an atmosphere of respect, inclusion, and being listened to. “Frontline workers in particular voice a desire to feel respected. Employees increasingly want to bring their authentic selves to work.”  As a reaction, HR might aim to involve opinions from people of all levels. Initiating exchanges through workshops and discussions can help to create employee experiences that fit both business strategy and the needs of workers. Another approach for more exchange could be the formation of cross-functional committees which deal with e.g. topics such as corona safety measures. Having people from different departments in the organization helps to create more accepted solutions for initiatives. They could work similarly to feature teams and for example, discuss challenges that were discovered in an employee survey.
Even though participation is often helpful, it is very important to consciously decide when to choose a top-down or bottom-up approach. Business goals don’t need the employee’s participation and are clearly a top-down decision. Whereas topics like making the workplace socially compatible, the working environment, or health support might be more successfully decided in a bottom-up workflow. The key is to set the right priorities.
Do more (informal) check-ins
Communication at work was obviously fragmented during the pandemic, as large parts of the workforce had to work remotely. During that time most interactions only happened with immediate colleagues and focused on daily work, as Microsoft research has shown: “Firm-wide remote work […] decreased the share of collaboration time workers spent with cross-group connections by […] [around 25% compared to February 2019].”  That fragmentation led to less productivity, more frustration, and isolation in teams.
There have been many experiments to tackle that with most of them being cultural strategies. On the team level, leaders tried establishing new communication or meeting cultures. For formal exchange in remote work, one-on-one meetings turned out to be most valuable. With only two people the conversation is still organic, compared to larger group meetings, where feedback through eye contact, mimics, and interrupting each other is very limited. It became apparent that the social bandwidth is tremendously reduced in remote communication.
Another learning was that informal conversations for example in the kitchen or in the hallway carry an underestimated value for the work atmosphere. As a reaction, leaders introduced more informal check-ins of varying group sizes, to check for people’s moods and needs. It is also very beneficial to have time to talk about something else than work, connect with each other on a human level, and create a caring environment. Examples of popular rituals are team breakfasts, coffee hours, or digital after-work drinks. Some teams also tried to replace former in-person team events with an online adaptation. They organized e.g. food tastings, where everyone received a parcel with specialties to be tested with the group. Most important is that while testing new conventions, the interactions stay organic, instead of becoming stubborn applications of a certain method.
To help with the introduction of new conventions of digital collaboration and also foster solidarity in the team, it can be helpful to do comprehensive re-onboardings.  They are especially good to reconnect people after changes in organizational structures and to build trust in new positions and responsibilities. Another way to rebuild relationships in a hybrid workplace is to form cross-functional teams. They help to fight siloed structures by connecting departments. These teams can take responsibility for aspects of organizational culture such as learning, innovation, etc., or can perform workshops to solve real problems. In that way, the we-they-thinking is reduced and the definition of we can be broadened.
Care about health, especially mental health
A topic that is not new but received questionable attention in some organizations in the past is the question of health, especially mental health. Classic “workplace sports” are an established way to tackle this topic, but have their limits. That’s because they often address only physical health and aren’t able to adapt to different circumstances and needs we experience. Mental health, especially in cognitive fields of work, like in the tech business, is specifically important.  Flexible styles of work and dynamic workplaces are adding mental load and therefore enhance this need drastically. 
Flex your style
Different styles of leadership fit different types of people and situations. Our interviewees emphasized that the ability to flex your style and adapt to who and what you are working with gives you the opportunity to get the most out of every co-worker and situation.  Adaptation to the people you work with is probably the dimension you have to flex the most. On the other hand, one needs to react to changing circumstances from small things like a broken server to big impacts like the consequences of the pandemic, etc. They have an ultimate influence on your options and therefore an ultimate influence on the way you need to address them to make the most out of them. Being able to be flexible and adapt are key assets to any complex challenges that might arise. 
Connect leaders and employees
One of the most significant factors to determine the quality of cooperation is the leadership of teams that need to work together. “Leaders who model empathy, curiosity, proficiency with conflict, and a genuine desire to create widespread shared success build the strongest cross-functional partnerships.”  If the leads of different teams are well connected, the whole organization will benefit from their and their team member’s synergy.
To leverage this effect, some organizations started building leadership learning cohorts. These are cross-level and cross-functional groups of leaders who help each other become better leaders and be successful with their teams. Together they work on real projects that benefit the whole organization.
During our interviews, we came across the hypothesis that “productivity increases while innovation decreases” in remote environments. Whereas remote work environments are in need of specific ways of leadership , the home office doesn’t need more trust than onsite work. You can procrastinate just the same way while you are in the office as when you are at home. We know that different tasks perform better in different environments and about the importance of work design and its impact on employee engagement . The key weakness of the home office is the often limited possibility to separate different areas of life, but that is just a decoy for bigger problems in work design and workplace design which should also be addressed in onsite environments.
While there are some key developments that are important to understand, even more important is probably that there is no finished state of affairs. The whole discussion of organizational culture and the experience at the workplace already existed for decades but was fast-forwarded by the pandemic. Now it is vital not to settle but to keep on and continue to develop the organization’s culture and our work environment.
“I don’t ever wanna go back into an office, just to hide behind a screen.” — this quote from our interviews should give you an idea of what kind of an impact we talk about. There is a strong need to behold the values which developed in the pandemic — in addition to reestablishing the values which were lost. That means while there is an interest in getting back together and having true possibilities to collaborate, there is also a strong interest in keeping the flexible and adaptable style of work that was gained during the pandemic.
Classically we tend to design our life around our work. In a nutshell: at given times, we have to be at a given place — all other decisions of when we are where are often designed around these circumstances. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, this was interrupted — suddenly our work started to adapt more and more to our broader life outside of work and we became more flexible in how we dealt with different responsibilities.
Not a new understanding, but one which the pandemic certainly spotlighted: there is more to work than a salary. Work is a part of our life and the quality of this part needs to be understood as important as all the others. Life is just too short and valuable to spend eight hours a day, five days a week with mediocre qualities in a mediocre environment. There are a lot of ideas and solutions to improve here — things like the “work family” or “workcation” are great steps in the right direction but are often merely empty shells. Values written somewhere, even if signed by every person in the company, are just not worth the paper they are printed on. To succeed with your organizational culture you need to lead and work by example and create an atmosphere of authenticity that inspires people.
Kathrin Pawelke, was at the time VP of People & Organization of FinLeap — a fintech start-up incubator located in Berlin with a record of successful brands in their ecosystem like CLARK or Solarisbank.
Hanne Hecker, was at the time Head (and is now VP) of Product at Ryte — a platform to evaluate the user experience of websites and is based in Munich. Formerly known as OnPage, Ryte is linked to the Bits’n Pretzels festival through Andreas Bruckschlögl, one of the co-founders.
Matthias Heigl, was at the time the Head of Product of Jameda — a service to search for doctors and make and manage appointments. Jameda was founded in 2007 in Munich, is part of Hubert Burda Media, and had about 7 million users per month in 2017.
Moritz Pawelke, is partner for Digital Architecture of the corporate advisory WAS Advisory. Based in Stuttgart, they are represented at 13 locations around Germany and in more than 100 countries worldwide.
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