In recent years, workplace culture has been defined by everything from company values to whether or not there’s a foosball table in the breakroom. It’s a nebulous term that sometimes seems akin to “squishy” corporate jargon like synergy or bandwidth. The problem is, workplace culture does have meaning and can play a crucial role in employee performance, workplace satisfaction, and productivity.
Besides, no workplace is devoid of culture. As Stanford behavioral researcher Amir Goldberg says, “Cultures emerge, whether you want it or not… It’s not as if there are companies without a culture.”
But what happens if that culture experiences a radical shift? What if people are removed from a traditional office setting and begin conducting most of their work at home?
These, of course, are not theoretical questions. They illustrate the new reality of work-life during a long-term pandemic. And that reality is unlikely to change anytime soon, if ever. A survey by Future Forum reveals that a full 72 percent of knowledge workers prefer a hybrid work model that blends office time with work-from-home (WFH) time, while 16 percent prefer working fully remote. With these new working conditions, how can companies possibly cultivate culture? Why should they bother? And how does neuroscience play a role in all this? We will explore those questions in this post, but first, let’s address another key question:
What is work culture?
Culture, work or otherwise, can be difficult to explain. On a larger scale, culture can be defined as a collection of “behaviors, values, symbols, meaning systems, communication systems, rules, and conventions.” When narrowing the lens to focus on workplace culture, we often talk about shared values, a common mission, or normative behavior. Culture can express itself in big choices (inclusivity, expectations, procedures/operations) or in small, everyday actions (the way we interact with others, making ourselves vulnerable, our conduct during meetings).
Think of culture as the norms that exist in your work community. Are people usually open, honest, and even a little vulnerable during company meetings? Or is the culture more formal? Do employees socialize, or keep things strictly business? Is there an open line of communication between management and staff, or are those interactions infrequent and formal?
Workplace culture matters (and it’s deeply linked to our thought patterns).
When companies emphasize culture, they are often met with success; when culture is de-emphasized or ineffective, that can result in “disengaged employees, high turnover, poor customer relations, and lower profits.” From a neurological standpoint, culture is integral to our everyday behaviors and ways of thinking.
Neurologists and neuro-researchers have found clear ties between thought patterns and one’s cultural background. For instance, Americans’ individualistic culture affects how we see the world and solve problems (which often differs from those who hail from more collectivist cultures). It has been determined that “Both the structure and function of the human brain throughout its development are shaped by the environment.” This same basic premise can be applied to work culture and how it affects our thought patterns.
Garo D. Reisyan, author of Neuro-Organizational Culture, identifies several ways in which neuroscience and workplace culture are intertwined. He points out that perceiving, feeling, judging, thinking, deciding/acting, and learning are all neurological components that are intrinsically linked to organizational culture. For instance, when we notice something out of the ordinary in the workplace, our attention is drawn to it and we immediately place a judgment on it (whether conscious or unconscious). For example, if your work culture is fairly formal and a team member drops a swear word or reveals personal information during a meeting, your brain will instantly recognize this behavior as unusual and you might feel an instant reaction (discomfort, amusement, relief that someone is finally speaking their mind!).
One of the implications of the culture-brain connection is that culture can be deeply embedded within an organization and is nearly impossible to change overnight. As Reisyan says, “It is naïve to send someone or some people to a three-day training and expect…a culture change.”
Cultivating culture must be deliberate, long-term, and sustainable. But how can we possibly cultivate workplace culture when so many of us are not in a workplace, but are instead working remotely from our respective homes?
Begin with these 3 actions:
In many ways, the WFH era is a unique opportunity for workplaces to reinvent themselves and improve company culture. But it’s difficult to know what “improvement” means unless you talk with your team. Encourage communication through surveys, forums, or one-on-one meetings. At the company Fastly, the leadership team has implemented “listening circles,” in addition to using Slack channels and employee surveys. They report: “We’re listening a lot, we’re asking a lot of questions, we’re gathering a lot of feedback, and we’re acting on that.”
As a leader, it’s more important than ever to initiate “touchpoints” or check-ins with team members. Keep communication open and sincere, listen closely to the needs and wants of your team, and take meaningful action based on that feedback.
2. Be human
Getting small glimpses into our co-workers’ lives has become normal. We see cats walking across keyboards, messy countertops, or kids demanding an afternoon snack. What better time to acknowledge our shared humanity and dare to be candid and vulnerable? This is an opportunity to find the humor in every day, and to laugh off mistakes (“you’re on mute!”). If your workplace culture has traditionally been more formal, stuffy, or distant, consider adjusting that to match our changing work landscape. With so much grim news, it’s healthy to enjoy some humor and casualness.
Additionally, this is an unprecedented opportunity to connect upper-level management with everyone else. In an office setting, C-level executives can seem remote and, but virtual meetings are the great equalizer. Upper management can leverage this technology by regularly holding 20- or 30-minute meetings to deliver updates, connect with staff, and answer questions. This technique was adopted by Slack, and the company found it to be an incredible opportunity “to make executives more approachable, show our own vulnerability, and transform the culture into one that more explicitly values individuals and individuality.”
3. Prompt engagement
When organic meetings are no longer part of the fabric of work, that can create some distance between teammates. The casualness and impulsivity of these interactions is lost, replaced by scheduled Zoom meetings or emails. Because happenstance meetings or lunchtime socialization are no longer a “thing,” it is up to company leadership to facilitate casual meetings, virtual happy hours, or other socialization activities. For new employees, these meetings are especially important, since they do not share a common history with their co-workers.
Although arranging “casual” meetings seems anything but casual, these activities don’t have to feel forced. The company Reprise has “Watercooler Wednesdays,” where all employees are paired randomly with someone in the company. They discuss a suggested topic, before meeting as a group and sharing what they learned. The company Automattic uses a program called Donuts which pairs people randomly through Slack to encourage informal networking.
Whatever your approach, be sure to emphasize fun and inclusivity. Use your creativity, try out a networking approach, and garner feedback from your team.
Not only is it possible to foster workplace culture in a WFH environment, but it is also critical to do so. A strong organizational culture is one of the signposts of a successful organization, and both the company and its people reap the benefits. Culture cultivation doesn’t have to feel forced! Make it fun, listen to your team, and use this unprecedented time as an opportunity to reinvent and improve workplace culture.
If you are curious and want to do more to be intentional about creating a workplace culture that matters especially in a virtual environment, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.