Is there a post-pandemic culture crisis? - A people-oriented point of view

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I think it is time to look at culture, post- (or even during-) pandemic. At changing cultures, at continual cultural improvement and at metrics for good culture and the Impact of bad culture.

That’s a bit much for a short blog, but it’s a heads-up for research I am just starting, into continual cultural improvement, with a side incursion into Experience Level Agreements (XLAs).

The sort of thing which disturbs me is this, from a poll commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) for its 2022 annual Risk in Focus report, to be published in September 2021 (there is a 2021 report here, which found that almost half (45.5%) of chief audit executives report that the pandemic has impacted organisational culture for the worse: “there is an emerging post-pandemic organisational culture crisis, which has the potential to trigger a chain of negative impacts across wider business structures. The hybrid working model limits face-to-face interaction, curtailing previous processes to build strong organisational cultures and team cohesion” (according to its PR consultancy, Atlas Partners).

On the face of it, this makes sense. Alison McFadyen, Group Head, Internal Audit, Standard Chartered Bank, says:

The hybrid working model poses its own unique risks, so at Standard Chartered we are looking to implement processes that remedy those. We are especially focused on retaining culture, something we’ve been paying close attention [to] for the past two to three years. We’ve implemented a behavioural risk assessment which aims to be a forward-looking view of culture, seeking drivers of red flags that could lead to wider issues. We also examine incentive structures, speak-ups, and individual interviews; the intent is to understand behaviours that could give rise to organisational culture risk.”

Nevertheless, it is worth digging a little deeper. For example, my colleague Claire Agutter, asks:

Are we talking ‘post-pandemic crisis’ or ‘opportunity to plan ahead’? My issue here is, we’re not through the pandemic and everyone is still struggling. So, how can we make statements about the impact on organisational culture? Did previous processes building strong organisational culture really exist? Coping with the pandemic has distilled culture for some organisations and they are starting to see just what it is that endures when the face-to-face element is removed. This quote is around a lot ‘you are not working from home, you are at your home during a crisis trying to work’.”

The implication of the IIA poll is that hybrid working, including home-working, is more risky, or brings in unaddressed risks. I am more inclined to see it as differently risky – in some ways less risky, in some ways more. I am sure of three things:

  1. Organisational culture isn’t “good” or “bad”, it just is. You have to live with it, although if you can come up with metrics for its usefulness, you can manage a continual improvement program for culture.
  2. Culture isn’t something you do to your organisation, it is something you react to. Your processes have to work in the prevailing culture – culture doesn’t fail, your processes might, if they don’t take account of your culture.
  3. Culture is everyone’s responsibility, not that of any Internal Audit group (although the Standard Chartered group quote above implies that people are being considered and all stakeholders are given an input, which is a good start). It is, however, a good idea to have someone monitoring cultural issues and providing feedback.

The old office-based status quo had its own cultural issues. Despite “the old office-centric in-person interactions”, any “shared purpose, values and sense of community within their organisation” is often illusory and managers who rely on “expected behaviours” are often disappointed. Any organisation which, pre-pandemic, relied on its hardened perimeter for security and its ability to get all its employees together in one place (to sing the Company Song, perhaps), to ensure employee engagement, was probably fooling itself

Similarly, the new hybrid work environment can easily pay “lip service” to cultural issues. But it can also result in a more desirable culture, because top management may be more visible in Zoom meetings; management by outcomes, rather than by desk-time, may be encouraged; staff may be able to work more effectively, when it suits them (and waste less tome in commuting), and this may make them more positive about their employer.

In reality, I don’t think much is really changing with organisational culture, post-pandemic. It is still mostly a people thing, supported by process and technology. If an organisation had a good organisational culture (however it defines that) pre-pandemic, with all stakeholders involved, with good transparency, with collaborative communication at all levels and real employee buy-in by all employees, then organisational culture should be self-correcting in a crisis. Perhaps one might encourage this by employing a cultural mentor and posting a few (anonymised) cultural KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).

If your organisational culture is falling apart, in your perception, because more people are admitting to working from home and visiting the office less, you probably had a fairly dysfunctional organisational culture in the first place. “Good” culture, and continual cultural improvement doesn’t fit well with a command-and-control management style, which places process and technology above people, rather than the other way round.

At least this IIA research is based on a survey, with real data from a defined population; all too often, statements around culture aren’t, as Claire points out. “There are,” she says, “lots of ‘everyone back to the office’ vs ‘no one back to the office‘ type statements online, which mainly seem to be based on managers’ opinions and not on any real data”.

Here is an interesting article, looking at the changing status quo from a people point of view. Perhaps “group decision-making-hums” have a place in organisational culture? Are they “a case of techies craving some ‘fuzzy connections’ or a search for ‘sense-making’ tools”? Whatever, they may be a symptom of a culture that recognises that “even in a digital world, humans need those physical connections that we all too often ignore”.