Burned out? Languishing? Uncommitted? The pandemic has taken a toll on workers who feel over-Zoomed and tapped out. As they reluctantly head back to the office, how do you help them re-engage?
Our experience as anthropologists and business consultants tells us it’s a good time to focus on the four forces that shape your culture: vision, interest, habit, and innovation. It often takes decades for a culture to change. Usually a series of small shifts occur before a big one moves it in a new direction. But sometimes it happens all at once, literally, as it did when the shock of the pandemic hit. Overnight, for many companies, remote working became “the way we do things here.” It was an amazing, turn-on-a-dime, coast-to-coast feat of cultural adaption. But it had a dark side. Feelings of stagnation and emptiness became pervasive as people worked at home—and alone.
Now that cubicles are filling up again and hybrid arrangements are rolling out, your culture will be transformed for a second time in just over a year, leaving people feeling whipsawed. In a time of extreme uncertainty, where there is no clear best practice to follow, you have to look to the past for insight. As anthropologists, we have drawn timeless lessons for what drives successful cultural transformation across societies and organizations. Many business experts will tell you that culture starts at the top, where leaders hold the keys to success, but social science tells us everybody plays a role in shaping culture. For all of human history, it has been a collective power. Make it work for you by focusing on the four key forces that drive culture and will determine whether your organization makes the leap to the hybrid work future successfully .
- Bring a cross-section of your people together for a day to create a shared vision of the post-pandemic workplace. Encourage people to imagine “histories of the future” in which they look back on this time and celebrate their successes in returning to the office. Get input from others about those stories. Simplify them. Make them as vivid as possible. Your people will feel empowered if you give them a hand in writing their own future.
- Tune in to the power of interest by sharing those stories widely and listening to the ways they resonate with deep social and emotional needs. Your organization is made up of tribes–cliques and factions that you need to connect with to make this transition successfully. Identify the main influencers in these tribes and address their WIIFM (“what's in it for me”) by giving them a chance to talk about how their aspirations align with your organization’s transition plans. Begin forming strategies to close the gap between what people need and what your organization needs to deliver.
- Facilitate constructive dialogues with everyone in the organization about aligning the desired post-pandemic culture with people’s needs in order to create new habits. Think carefully about creating rituals—well-run, inclusive meetings are a good start—that celebrate the kind of behaviors you want to see in your organization. Give remote workers as much visibility as their in-office counterparts. Reward managers who enable their people to set work-life boundaries. Look outside your walls for ideas for good ideas, searching for opportunities to learn from other companies, including your competitors.
- Experiment. Bringing your people along on this transition successfully will require continuous cultural innovation. Create small-scale, action-oriented experiments designed to close the gaps you have identified between what people need and what they actually gain from your organization. Feel free to stretch a bit. Think outside the lines and boxes on the org chart.
The world has grown complicated in ways we never could have imagined at the dawn of the 2020s. The COVID-19 pandemic is just part of the puzzle. There’s also the drive for social and racial justice, and a divisive political climate—all of which call for united, collective action. In the early months of the pandemic, the cosmetics company L’Oreal quickly shifted production from skin creams and beauty products to hand sanitizers, which the company provided without cost to hospitals and grocery stores. Google awarded its employees an additional 14 weeks of paid leave to adjust their family situations and manage childcare. What these and many other organizations did, what people have always done in challenging moments that demand change, was create a better future together.
Avoid the impulse to turn the clock back to pre-pandemic times. Your workers have changed. They have different expectations. Many had life-altering YOLO (“you only live once”) experiences when they were working from home. They want more from a job than a paycheck and flexible Fridays. Look ahead by harnessing the four forces. Make it a shared effort.
About the Authors
Mario Moussa is co-author of THE CULTURE PUZZLE, president of Moussa Consulting, and an Affiliated Faculty member in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He also teaches in the School of Professional Studies at New York University and is an educator at Duke University Corporate Education. His work has been featured on NPR and in Time, Businessweek, U.S. News and World Report, Fortune, Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, the Economist, and the Financial Times. He is the coauthor of the bestseller The Art of Woo and Committed Teams. He received his MBA from the Wharton School and his PHD from the University of Chicago.
Derek Newberry co-author of THE CULTURE PUZZLE, a Strategy Lead in Organization and Culture Design at co:collective,and an Affiliated Faculty member in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Fortune, Entrepreneur, Forbes, Quartz, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is the coauthor of Committed Teams. He received his BA from George Washington University and PhD in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania
Greg Urban is co-author of THE CULTURE PUZZLE, the Arthur Hobson Quinn Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the current editor of the Journal of Business Anthropology. He has authored and edited several books, including Metaculture and Corporations and Citizenship. He received his BA, MA, and PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago.