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The impact of social distancing on workplace culture

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In the ensuing months, we’ve learned quite a bit about the virus and how best to protect ourselves and each other (outside of remaining at home). This is great because it allows us to plan for our return to work — we can create new policies and procedures that will help keep everyone safe.

But as is so often the case when it comes to people, things are a lot more complicated than that. For starters, the mere existence of policies and procedures does not necessarily mean people will follow them, whether failing to do so consciously or unconsciously. This has consequences beyond physical safety. What happens to the collaborative potential between two colleagues when one of them consistently fails to follow safety protocols? Or what happens to office morale if employees feel that “snitching” on bad behavior is the new normal? Or what happens if employees feel that being forced to wear masks is a violation of their autonomy, diminishing their intrinsic motivation? Unfortunately, the answers will not emerge from a better understanding of how COVID-19 spreads.

These very complex questions have no easy answers. And we’re only looking at one sliver (non-compliance) of the greater challenge that is the entire return-to-work pie. But if we take a step back, we can see that there are two superseding questions that will meaningfully influence virtually every scenario we can imagine, and they are both about organizational culture:

  • How will our existing organizational culture affect the embrace (or lack thereof) of our new policies and procedures
  • How will our new policies and procedures affect our existing organizational culture?

Let’s begin with a shared understanding of what we mean by “organizational culture.” There are a lot of different ways in which it can be defined, but for my money the most effective comes from Terrance Deal and Allen Kennedy: “The way things get done around here.”

With that as our definition, there is one other aspect of organizational culture that we must keep in mind: as a social construct, every organizational culture is unique. And as such, there are no rules that always apply. That is why best practice around anything cultural is to measure and assess the culture first, because making any plans in advance of that is worse than useless (in that it leads to anchoring biases that make objective observation much more difficult).

Under the best of circumstances, measuring an organizational culture would involve a representative focus group identifying espoused values, assessing shared assumptions, and comparing both cultural artifacts (the “evidence” of what is actually happening in the culture). This not only surfaces “the way things get done around here,” but also illustrates how cultures can so easily deviate from intentions. It is a long, occasionally uncomfortable, and incredibly valuable exercise.

Of course, these are not the best of circumstances, and pulling off what I describe above during a quarantine feels pretty unrealistic. So, let’s instead consider how we may begin to answer those two questions while working from home.

To answer how your culture will affect the embrace of the new normal, your first consideration is how things get done in your organization.

Are you a results-oriented or process-oriented company? If it’s the latter, you have a big advantage in getting your employees to readily embrace the new procedures. If it’s the former, you’re not so lucky, and will have to put extra effort into conveying this new emphasis on process over results. For example, “It’s no longer OK to skip steps to make a deadline. The right choice is to miss the deadline.”

How are people most motivated: money, career advancement, social currency, expertise, charismatic leaders, mastery and achievement? If you can identify what most motivates your people, you can craft messaging and framing to lean into what works. For example, if public recognition represents significant currency in your organization, perhaps you can celebrate someone weekly for their adherence to the new rules. If people are motivated by career advancement, create stretch assignments to tackle the problem. The more people you have working on this the better the outcomes will be.

Is yours an effusive/enthusiastic or skeptical culture? Obviously, the latter will require a great deal more work, involving tangible and transparent goals and measures, alongside a big heaping of education delivered via the mechanisms described so incredibly by Robert Cialdini’s Influence.

The second question regarding how social distancing will affect your culture is even harder to answer. There are a virtually infinite number of unconscious psychological factors that will manifest in individual behaviors, and ultimately to the broader organization.

How lucky will people feel still to have a job in this environment? How long will that last? To what extent did physical proximity fulfill employees’ psychological need for connectedness? What will happen to their motivation if that need is no longer fulfilled? To what extent will the new policies and procedures add so much to people’s cognitive load that they simply have insufficient mental energy to do their jobs as effectively as possible?

There are two answers to impossible questions like these: “It depends,” and “We don’t know.” What we do know is that the more we understand what our culture was, the more we can understand what is happening to our culture now. And with that understanding comes the ability to intervene and proactively shape the way that things get done around here now.

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Workplace culture Compliance Workplace safety and security
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