Creating the right workplace culture​​​​​​​ - Professor Robert MacIntosh

Last week, 13 junior Goldman Sachs employees told of 95-hour working weeks and abusive behavior, sparking a fresh debate on workplace culture.

Remote working has, by and large, been a technological revelation, says Prof MacIntosh

Many organisations place great store in their culture and with good reason. Toxic cultures tend to ruin lives in the short term and businesses in the medium to longer term. A strong and positive culture helps retain the best staff and build customer loyalty, so it is little wonder that leaders pay close attention to organisational culture, which is often defined in shorthand as “the way we do things round here”. But what happens to culture when “round here” is a loose, digitally enabled concept?

We’re one year into a monumental social experiment of no-one’s choosing. Large sectors of the economy have found that place isn’t quite as critical as we had thought. Remote working has, by and large, been a technological revelation and prompted a significant rethink of working patterns. So how do you maintain and nurture culture remotely?

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All-staff meetings are much easier to organise in cyberspace which, in theory, should help in establishing norms, role modelling behaviours bosses want to encourage, and in creating a sense of belonging. Of course, it also means that missteps are more visible, as KPMG’s chair Bill Michael discovered after airing his views on unconscious bias training.

Remote working denies us many of the opportunities to pick up cultural cues by osmosis. That doesn’t have to mean that organisational culture erodes, but it is worth noting that maintaining a culture was effortful pre-pandemic and has become more so given our current arrangements.

Authenticity, however, is still the watchword, even in cyberspace. If your organisation proclaims values, breaches of these are just as noticeable on Zoom as they are in a room. The boundaries between front-of-house and backstage can be trickier to navigate when the contents of the chat facility remain visible to those who’ve left the meeting and it is undoubtedly harder to remember who is and isn’t there in bigger digital meetings. Remote working also opens the possibility of glimpsing how we treat the cat, the kids or the delivery driver. It is harder to fake sincerity and that is a good thing.

There are three things crucial to nurturing a great culture or, indeed, trying to change a poor one.

First, talk about it. Culture might not seem like substantive work, especially when everyone is busy and synchronous time is precious. Yet expecting norms, behaviours and belonging to just happen is unrealistic.

Second, call out breaches to what you hold culturally precious as and when they occur. What you tolerate or ignore inevitably recurs and in this sense we inherit the culture that we deserve. Unfortunately, we tend to focus on praising good things and less on challenging negative things. The chat facility in our digital meeting rooms create great opportunities to hear positive things. Anonymous polling or comments offer a novel means of surfacing negative reactions, but nothing beats calling out poor behaviours there and then.

Third, treasure opportunities to hear from a newcomer. New colleagues have a far higher capacity to notice things than those who have been institutionalised. Don’t waste time soliciting praise for what your new hires find appealing about the culture they have joined. Instead, spend the first three months asking what strikes them as unusual, different or downright odd. The answers will be revealing and typically contain clues as to the good, the bad and the ugly of your culture.

You and your long-standing colleagues will probably have gone nose-blind to these initial cues, but the first impressions of new starts are so invaluable it is almost worth hiring someone simply to hear their reactions. Just look at Goldman Sachs.

Professor Robert MacIntosh, Edinburgh Business School

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