Important Culture Levers in a Time of Crisis

Organisations who are not paying attention to rapidly pivoting their people strategy, risk becoming utterly irrelevant. Already in this short time, baskets of juicy learnings are there for the picking. Many leaders have seen firsthand how strong their own limiting assumptions really are. And sadly, many of them remain blinded and hamstrung by their limiting assumptions which they either refuse to acknowledge or are simply oblivious to. These restrictive beliefs have a narrowing way of diminishing the scope of innovation. They usually start with phrases such as ‘we’ll never be able to…’ or ‘there is no way…’.


Only a few days prior to lock-down being implemented in South Africa, one CEO claims with conviction, that ‘there is just no way the business will be able to operate as a remote business. Days later, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared South Africa’s lock-down. Within 48 hours their entire operation moved online…and they’re still operating. The power of limiting assumptions cannot be underestimated. Notice now, how much the world, your world, has shifted and consider everything you thought was impossible. Now, recall everything that you have learned, developed and managed to do, with speed. This is a good time to pause and reflect on the following: What are the limiting assumptions that hold you and your organisation back? What might be possible if you removed them?


An interesting polarity we have observed is that, in times like these, where no one can escape the impact of the current challenges, we see that many of us do not rise to meet our greatest expectations, but rather, sink to the level of our practices. What are your personal practices that keep you centred? What are your organisations’ culture practices? and how can these be cultivated and practiced remotely? Without intentionally fostering these practices, building and growing your culture, becomes unlikely. Without focus on your people’s experience of culture, especially during challenging times, you risk disengagement and even losing your best people.


This article explores 5 core levers of healthy organisational cultures. With each lever, we will suggest ways to pivot them to meet the changing needs of our remote workforces:


Let’s start with Work Space, many of us have been shifted into working from home with little time to prepare our ‘home-office’. In their book ‘We Are Still Human, and work shouldn’t suck’ Andy Golding and Brad Shorkend identify 4 types of workspace that are necessary for peak productivity, highest-level thinking and awesome employee experience.


In a typical office environment, these would almost always all be independent spaces. In a home office where space may be limited and now shared with spouses and other family members, we might need to get creative with ensuring there is a distinction between these spaces.


1. Work Space


Space to Work


In a typical office environment, this would generally be the open-plan area where you spend time just getting stuff done (or at least trying to, don’t get us started on the drawbacks of open plan, that would require another article entirely). In your home environment, this is typically the desk or table that you work at. Consider what you need, to create a comfortable space with minimal clutter and access to the relevant technology required, for optimal productivity. Have you thought about your background? The space that others will see when you’re on VC calls? What can you set up that supports your personal or professional brand, and helps get you into that ‘work’ flow?


Space to Think


Quiet rooms, libraries and other spaces where talking is not allowed. These quiet spaces create an environment conducive to the uninterrupted thinking work we all find ourselves needing to do some (or most) of the time. Unfortunately, in a WFH (work from home) situation that sanctity of silence might be hard to come by. How then can you manufacture it? In our own quest to answer this, both authors of this article have discovered that listening to music helps, but not just any music. For us, it has to be sans lyrics, gentle (background) jazz/cafe style or instrumental.


Play around with what works best for you. Headphones matter a lot here as they undoubtedly help with the ‘escape’ into the realm of deep thinking.


Perhaps there is a spot in the garden, under a tree where you do your best thinking? Perhaps it is in the guest bedroom where the afternoon light is perfect. Don’t be afraid to experiment with what works best for you… also, tell your family/house-mates that you are going into a deep thinking session and would like the next 45min to 1 hour to yourself.


Space to Collaborate


War rooms, brainstorm spaces, tables and walls that you can write on, these spaces are easy to come by in offices but not so easy to come by in a lockdown. How then do you create a constructive brainstorm capability? Zoom has a breakout room functionality that is extremely useful, play with it and explore how it could be useful. Do you have paper, a flip chart or a whiteboard that you can put behind you so that anyone you’re on a video call with can see it?


One thing to be conscious of – talking over each other on a video call always results in glitches and missed information. In group brainstorms we’d suggest having someone ‘run’ the session and direct the conversation – when someone wants to speak they can put up their hand (physically in the video and/or via the ‘raise hand’ function).


Space NOT to Work


Pause areas, break rooms, games rooms, cafeterias any of the places we go to take a break from working. In a WFH scenario where your dining room may double as your office, delineating and distinguishing between ‘space to work’ and ‘space to not work’ can be more difficult but it is important to try and create this separation as it helps us switch off and tune out (which is a good thing, and a psychological requirement).


No-one can work at peak efficiency for 8+ hours. Taking breaks is important and has actually been shown to improve concentration


and effectiveness. If you have a study or office area – the rest of the house can be a work free zone. Perhaps only one half of the dining room table is allocated for working. Can you pull a tablecloth over your computer when it comes time for dinner? Where are the ‘no-work-allowed’ spaces in your home. It doesn’t matter where you create these spaces, just that you do.


Have you considered demarcating ‘no work’ times? These boundaries are essential to creating time for the other important aspects of your life, especially when the usual compartmentalisation no longer exists.


2. Live your Values


We have a powerful opportunity to reflect on what we say we value, what we actually value and how we demonstrate it. For organisations and leaders who claim to have healthy, values-based cultures, consider the following:


  • When was the last time you referenced your values during these times of crisis?
  • How are these values guiding your decisions?
  • How are these values guiding the way you treat your people?
  • What are the practices, habits and rituals that you loved in the pre- COVID-19 world? How might you continue them now? And what new rituals and habits might you be able to foster to help live your values in a remote work situation


Increasingly, companies are becoming geographically spread, across nationalities and time zones. Building an awesome company culture and employee experience in these novel situations, requires different thinking and different interventions.


3. Lead with Healthy Conversations


For many, managing and leading teams remotely is a whole new experience and brings with it uncertainty and a feeling of being out of control. Healthy conversations are a cornerstone to building a world- class organisational culture. Judith E. Glaser put it aptly when she said ‘to get to our next level of greatness depends on the quality of our culture, which depends on the quality of our relationships, which depends on the quality of our conversations’. Building trust and reducing fear is core to this. Following are some questions you can ask each other to establish clarity and cultivate trust for healthy conversations:


  • How are you emotionally, physically and what do you need to put in place to support your personal wellbeing?
What spaces do you have available for work, thinking, collaboration and down time?
  • What requires further clarity?
  • What is your understanding of what is expected here?
  • What do you need, to make this happen?
What are your priorities now?
  • What are you experiencing in your current reality?
  • What can shift, to allow for flexibility so the outcomes can be achieved in a mutually beneficial way?
  • What do I need to understand about your perspective to establish mutual understanding?
  • What assumptions are we making?
  • What is important to you?
What does success look like to you?
  • What support do you need?
  • How would you like to share updates on progress?
  • How do you like to receive feedback?


Remember to communicate with candour and care.


Shift your thinking from a space of ‘who needs to know’ to one of ‘who does not know’. Consider the frequency of conversations that takes place at the office. Some of these are intended, formal meetings and others are unintended collisions. These important conversations are the spaces we connect, build trust, cohesion and community. Have you had a discussion with your team regarding the frequency, duration and type of meetings/ conversations your team needs? These touch points ensure you stay connected, productive and bring your culture to life through these shared virtual experiences?


4. Check Your Trust Default Settings


Now is also a good time to reflect on your TFD’s or ‘Trust Default Settings’. The way we trust (or don’t trust) is heavily informed by our TFD’s. Are you someone who defaults to trust, or do you default to distrust? What are the base assumptions that you work from? Is it that people are infinitely capable and good at their core – thus you can trust them to get things done? Or is your default assumption of people that they are incapable, innately lazy and will only act in their own self-interest? These TFD’s will inform a huge portion of the way in which you lead and manage people.


We’re often not aware of our default settings, they just are what they are. It is important to pause and reflect on this. What is your TFD? How might that be aiding or hindering you and your team, especially in these trying times?


If you default to trust, this new world will be easier to adjust to because you trust your colleagues / employees to still show up and get effective work done…however if you default to distrust and have traditionally managed people by presence and ‘butt in seats’ – this new world of work might be extremely uncomfortable for you.


If you default to distrust, with a need to control, (it’s ok to own it), how might you start to reset and recalibrate your defaults? Where might your default patterns be leading to disengagement and learned helplessness in your teams?


5. Define Decision Making, Authority and Permission


Where does decision-making authority live, within your organisation? Are individual team members able to make decisions, act and move or are they stuck waiting for permission from higher up?
We’re experiencing firsthand, how fast the world can change. Consider, how fast your organisation and people can respond, act and pivot? Now is a great time to uplift and create


The assumptions that people live with, around permission and authority are plentiful. The simplest way to cut through this is to get clear and specific with people. No Holds Barred. Have a conversation with your colleagues and teams around what the decisions are that they can make without needing authorisation, and what they should be seeking authorisation on. Note: have a conversation.


Talk to your teams – what are the things they need to be able to push forward on quickly, that if they go pear shaped won’t sink the boat (i.e these are holes that sit above the waterline), and what are the things that if they pushed ahead and failed at might sink the boat (i.e below the waterline, where these holes mean water rushes in and the boat might begin sinking). This analogy of decision-making above and below the waterline is a powerful one to share with your teams.


Let it guide them in moving forward quickly, yet safely. In a face-to-face business it might have been easier to have a quick, impromptu chat with the right person to authorise actions. This is not the case in a remote world and the last thing you need right now is for your business’ momentum to be stalled.


In summary, 5 of the core levers of remote culture are:


  1. Space to Work 

  2. Live your Values 

  3. Lead with Healthy Conversations 

  4. Lead with Trust 

  5. Define Decision making, Authority and Permission


How you lead and cultivate culture through this pandemic can place you and your organisation in a position to not just tell a good culture, but to live it through action and purposeful impact.


About the Authors

Andy Golding
Andy Golding, Employee Experience Specialist is the co-founder of Still Human a Relevance Advisory that works with organisations to understand how in a world gone digital crazy they can remain relevant.


She is the co-author of ‘We Are Still Human, and work shouldn’t suck’ and was named one of South Africa’s Top 50 Business Women to Watch in 2018, by Entrepreneur Magazine


Dvorah Stein
Dvorah Stein is a People & Culture Strategist and Associate Certified Coach (ACC). She is a faculty member, Developmentor® and Assessor at Integral+ Africa’s Coaching Centre with a background in Industrial Psychology and 18 years’ experience in the field of people development, Human Resources, Learning and Development and Retail. She finds purpose in supporting individuals, teams and organisations to navigate change, activate their culture, transform obstacles and ignite innate potential.

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