How To Avoid A Culture Retreat… As We Start To Go Back To Work?

Today I want to bring up something important which has come up over the last few weeks:  how to avoid what I call a “culture retreat” as your company goes back to the office.

Here’s the topic: many companies who are coming back to work have told me that their newly found culture of agility, collaboration, rapid response, and empathy is starting to “retreat” when people come back to the office.

A large insurance company shared that once the call center workers started returning to their offices, managers started holding more meetings and bureaucracy started to return. Another HR leader in Asia shared that their middle managers are starting to “re-exercise control” over their teams and want to slow them down to come back into alignment. And several other companies told us that coming back to the office has reduced the amount of sharing, collaboration, and face to face communication.

I think I’d like to call this “Culture Retreat.” Over the last seven months we’ve all been empowered to move fast, invent, and work on important health, safety, training, and wellbeing programs. But once people go back into their offices, they realize that this newly found “startup-like” feeling of movement no longer feels as good. So managers and employees retreat back to their old way of thinking: waiting for someone to tell them what to do; spending time on staff meetings to get alignment; going through endless business reviews; and just slowing things down for everyone.

I don’t think this is a crisis yet, but as we discussed it in our Big Reset groups there was unanimous agreement that this problem is becoming real. And it’s easy to understand: once we go back to the same offices, facilities, and systems we used before the pandemic, we naturally go back to the behaviors we practiced before.

One of the biggest themes of the Pandemic is Transformation. Companies have been forced to transform their employee experience, transform their products and services, and transform the way they treat customers, supply chain partners, and staff. The transformation has been disruptive but positive. Like a “shot in the arm” when you weren’t expecting it, companies went digital, became agile, and learned to be empathetic listeners overnight.

But like a newly sober alcoholic or anyone else who’s trying to change, when we go back to the places we were before, we tend to go back to old habits. And these habits (managers holding information from teams; employees waiting before they invent; workers afraid to change their jobs; people holding back new ideas) are hard to break.

While I certainly don’t have the answer to this issue yet, let me give you three things to think about as your company “goes back to work.”

1/ Leaders have to accept their new roles. 

If there’s one thing that changed this year, it’s the role of leaders (and we’re all leaders in many ways). This year we learned to listen more, practice patience and humility, and trust people to do the right thing in very uncertain times. Many leaders think it’s their job to “know the answer” or “tell people what to do.” Those types of behaviors have been pushed aside this year, and to some degree, they threaten the positional power of managers. We have to prevent this backslide from happening.

For leaders, this means learning to accept that leadership really means that “people are following you.” In other words, it’s the way you empower, align, and support people that creates leadership. I’m sure most leaders learned a lot about this during the year. We, in HR, now have to try to institutionalize this change and make sure leaders don’t try to go back to “positional power” as their reward system in the year ahead.

This means continuing to reward and celebrate leaders who empower their teams. It means challenging bureaucracy like never before, even as it creeps back. It means teaching people that iterative solutions are more important than “making things perfect.” And it means helping CEOs and other senior leaders continue to push the practices of empathy, empowerment, and personal growth even as people come back to work.  (Read CEO as Chief Empathy Officer for more.)

2/ Teams should reflect on what they’ve learned.

The second thing I’d advise is for you as a team to take some time this Fall and reflect on “what did we learn this year?” What did we do that worked? What did we do that failed? What are the things we want to keep from this experience, and what are the things we want to throw away?

We helped a large consumer electronics company went through this process as they were reinventing themselves from a company that sells “lighting fixtures” to a company that sells “building lighting systems and online services.” Through a series of reflective meetings, teams all over the company discovered what it was about their legacy that they loved, and what it was that they hated. And this helped the company build a new manifesto that rewards the strong history and cultural themes that worked (invention, quality, teamwork) but also threw away the culture they hated (risk aversion, lack of personal growth, over-focus on profit). 

You should do this for your team this Fall. And write down what you discover, share it with other teams, and put together a “virtual wallboard” for everyone to share. Then as 2021 starts to emerge and the economy feels a little more “normal again,” you can look back at it and say “hey, what happened to our newfound culture of teamwork we had last year?” It’s a proven approach that works, and now is a good time to think about it.

3/ You in HR should become Cultural Anthropologists.

The third thing I’d advise (for those of you in HR) is to think about yourself as an Anthropologist. Now is the time to “study the animals” and make sure you’re observing, reflecting, and writing down what has been happening. As one of my coaches always tells me, “be curious about yourself.”

A curious and open-minded observation of your company will become hugely important in the year ahead. Yes, many of you are still in survival mode and may be going through restructuring. But now that we’ve dealt with the Pandemic for almost 7 months, there is a lot of anthropology to observe. Have certain people thrived and exploded with creativity? Have certain teams or business functions become integrated like never before? Have you been changing the way performance management and rewards are handled in a very creative way?

I know that most of you have invented some pretty amazing things this year – take stock of what they are so you can learn from them in the year ahead.

I know the Pandemic is far from over, and the world of business transformation continues at a record pace. But if you look at what we’ve learned already, there’s a lot to hold onto right now – let’s avoid “culture retreat” in the year ahead, and I think you’ll look back and see the silver lining in all this adversity.

For some good reflection read our research The Big Reset: What’s Working Now – it will get your ideas going.