The pandemic has permanently shifted the meaning of culture for businesses: Here’s how


Source: Unsplash/Charles Deluvio.

In the late afternoon in early-April, Eric Termuende sat down across the table from me at a small cafe on the jostling main drag of Vancouver’s hip Yaletown district.

We met in 2019 while I was spending a short sabbatical there, and we bonded over our shared fascination about how organisations work together.

Eric is an international speaker and best-selling author on the future of work. Given that 2020 has uncovered new terrain on this topic, we fired up Zoom to catch up and take a walk through what’s changed.

What emerged were three standout takeaways.

  1. How culture is now, more than ever, in the hands of team leaders, not the C-suite.
  2. Why asking what you don’t want in an employee might be a better way to find who you do.
  3. Why judging your experience by what others have will always leave you dissatisfied.

Let’s start with culture.

Along with seeing friends in person, going to concerts and eating in restaurants, another casualty of the pandemic is how organisations implement their ‘culture’ programs.

Our conversation started off with Eric’s observation: “While perks and benefits may attract people, behaviours and interactions keep them. Culture, then, is the relationships between the team and not the games in between tasks.” 

The sentiment is bang on, and exactly why the pandemic-induced shift in how cultures happen is an excellent thing. This change has been stripping away trappings, enabling businesses to get back to what culture always was: the collective expression of how we are together and the way we work. 

“Culture lives in the leaders’ hands more so than it ever has before, simply because he or she will be leading their team now and creating that environment virtually, more so than any of the C-Suite will,” Eric continued.

“There’s no mission, vision, values on the wall, there’s no cafeteria where we’ll go get a coffee … many of those things that we called culture aren’t here anymore.

“Culture then becomes the relationship between your team and the habits and behaviours when it comes to communication.”

And I’d go a step further and say everyone has a part to play in the shift.

When toddlers take over the call or everyone’s dog barks, it reminds us that our whole selves come to work in a way no culture program to ‘get to know your co-workers’ ever could. 

Next up is getting outside our ‘fit’ mantra when finding new hires. Spending too much time thinking and talking about ‘the right person’ means you’ll miss the chance to get clear on which candidates are wrong.

Eric’s advice to organisations is: “Ask what qualities you don’t want in an employee instead of what you do want.”

It is stellar advice that neatly dovetails with a question I suggest people use to understand what’s important to them: ‘Generally, when don’t people work out around here?’

Eliminating or surfacing the things you don’t want is a handy hack for finding the things that you do.

The last observation zooms in on a one-size-fits-all approach to experience.

“One of the biggest problems that I think we have with culture and with the workplace experience in the past decade is we think a universal best exists,” Eric notes.

“You can be working at home or in the office, reach the upper echelons of the C-suite or a teacher who takes six weeks off in the summer to go camping … there is no universal best, there is no right, no target to aspire to.”

Layer this into organisations, and you can end up with a deep well of discontent that will handily undermine efforts to work together better.

“I think the issue isn’t about what you wear to work, it’s about how connected we are to work,” Eric continued.

“It’s pride behind work being done.”

There’s plenty of disagreement about how the future of work will look. However, amid the difference, there is an agreement that a new normal is coming.

Each of the ideas above can help you adapt and move forward. 

In conclusion, liberate culture from the confines of the ‘people and culture’ area and mandate leaders across the business to step up and show what they care about.

Take an in-depth look at the attributes you don’t want in people you hire, then work like hell to avoid anyone who holds them.

And close the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ gap by helping people see that their side of the fence is okay, just different, from the other side.

See you next time.


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