My wonderful mother-in-law recently shared an article with me from The Atlantic called “Never Go Back to the Office:- The coronavirus killed corporate culture. Get used to working from home“. The article talks about significant changes to corporate culture as a result of COVID-19 and focuses on the reality that most businesses that don’t “have to” won’t want to re-open offices anytime soon and probably shouldn’t. I agree with the article in general, but it got me thinking about the actual impact an office has in developing cultures, habits, and tools/mechanisms for ideation and collaboration and how that influences how work is done. Office culture and the way we collaborate is often the reason why a company operates in specific ways and are often the tools/process and unsaid rules of how work is produced and how talent is nurtured. So when this environment is stripped away quickly, can the people, culture, and work output adapt quickly enough and compensate?
Every company is different and some will adapt better than others. But beyond the company is always the people and how they interact, communicate, generate solutions and ideas. We are largely a social society and we often best convey ideas and stories best face to face. This is how we are taught by our parents, how we interact with our friends, training by our schools and universities, and how most companies (not all) conduct work pre-covid-19. Are we recognizing how different this is for some, but more importantly, as companies are we helping folks adapt quickly enough so we can get the same level of thinking and output from our people before the environment moved from the office to work from home (WFH)?
I come from a creative industry; we often collaborate as a team, we story-tell together, and reading a room is how I’ve always worked (gestures, eye contact, the energy of others, etc.). I convey ideas and often problem-solve by whiteboarding, talking face-to-face with an entire team or 1-1 (in my office, over coffee/lunch/drinks, walking, etc.). So for me, this has changed how I work and although I have similar routines in place (leadership meetings, company meetings, 1-1 calls, slack, video, etc.), it’s not quite the same. I have to be very conscious of this and deliberately shift my style of work/communication to counter for all the office cultural/social tools I had access to before and that was second nature to me.
So, as leaders of organizations, departments, teams, and yourself; take a moment to think about how you can bridge the gap that might have been created, what coaching/training can you provide to help folks better story tell, ideate, and problem solve via phones, video conference (Zoom, Google Meet, etc), email, slack, other collaboration tools. Think about how you start conversations, go out of your way to connect personally with someone, have empathy as a way to relate and build a relationship (don’t gloss over it), how you present your deck/ideas and how this story needs to be told now and what you need to pay attention to in-order to virtually read the room/person (don’t talk continuously).
Not recognizing and addressing the gaps that might have been created can erode your culture and weaken what you and your organization produce and service. But while office environments might be gone for several more months and likely will change in the future, that doesn’t mean culture has been killed. It does mean we need to learn to work differently and build new/evolved ways of ideating, storytelling, and communicating together.