17th December 2020

Why culture mattered more than ever in 2020 — The Longest Year


The Longest Year is 360’s 2020 review series. From now until Christmas, the leadership team will be looking back at the most impactful communications moments and trends from a year of profound change and challenge. Visit the Longest Year hub to read more.

Culture and cultural fit are paramount in business. Together, they determine how well a team works together and how productive it is. In the long term, they are the key differentiators between organisations that stagnate and those that continually innovate.

Cultural fit really has nothing to do with personality but everything to do with values. Members of a high-functioning team may not speak to or see each other outside of the business environment, but when they’re together in the cultural bubble of work—and it comes down to the wire—they are prepared to push through together. That is when great things happen.

This togetherness is the secret sauce that business owners, team managers, and operation chiefs are constantly striving for, but the pandemic has made their task a lot tougher.

Work teams have been through two isolating national lockdowns. They have moved from the physical, communal office environment to their own individual kitchen tables and home office desks. Empathy, comprehension, and conversational skills have all been tested.

The importance of being connected

NUI Galway conducted research during both lockdowns to find out how teams were impacted by the government’s work-from-home guidelines. The research documented the rapid shift in attitudes to remote working: the key question changed from”why?” to “how?”.

Just over half (51%) of respondents had never worked remotely before Covid-19, but the experience quickly made them converts. In Phase 1 of the research (April), 83% of respondents wanted to work remotely post-crisis; in Phase 2 (October), that number grew to 94%.

In March, most employers were just as stunned as their employees by the pace of pandemic change. Literally overnight, thousands of organisations had to fundamentally reassess their ways of working and service delivery. Despite most moving quickly to find a workable solution, the transition was not necessarily straightforward or without adverse effects on morale and teamship.

Recruitment company Aperture Partners spoke to teams in financial services, technology, aviation, and consulting industries to understand the wellbeing issues they faced while remote working.

64% of people felt that lines between work and personal life were very blurred, with most working more hours than normal. Among respondents who rated their wellbeing as less than 5 out of 10:

  • 100% cited their employer as not proving a sense of stability.
  • 85% felt their leaders were not appropriately accessible during this time.

The NUIG research found that staying motivated was a major challenge. Take away the physical office interactions with teammates that break up the day and ease stresses of the job, and we lose team togetherness.

An absence of togetherness begins to erode workplace culture. Tasks become meaningless and work becomes a mere function to perform. Without redress, burnout is inevitable.

Despite these challenges, the NUIG research found that 78% of employees either agreed or strongly agreed that it is easy to work effectively when working remotely. They listed the top three advantages as:

  1. No traffic and no commute
  2. Greater flexibility as to how to manage the working day
  3. Reduced costs of going to work and commuting.

With broad knowledge of the positives and negatives of remote working practices on teams, it’s important for organisational leaders to begin prioritising solutions that build, preserve, and even improve workplace culture in 2021.

Employees haven't missed the commute, but that doesn't mean working from home is straightforward.

Distributed communications

The pandemic has clearly and rapidly altered the structure of human communication and relationships. The shift has been challenging, and leaders obviously won’t have got everything right.

If anything, 2020 has been a learning experience, which in turn puts leaders in a better position to prepare for 2021.

With insights from this year, they must now focus on putting in place a framework that enables their internal culture to thrive in ten, a hundred, or even a thousand distributed, individualised workplaces.

There are three key factors to consider:

  • Flexibility as a mindset — Businesses leaning towards a one-size-fits-all work-from-home policy may find themselves alienating half of their team and ignoring important individual needs. Teams will have different responsibilities and different optimal work preferences. Flexibility as a mindset should be embraced and practised to protect team togetherness and company culture.
  • Clear remote working policies — Return-to-work plans need to be prioritised. Leadership need to engage in open conversations about the setup and realities of working from home and working in the office. It’s important for teams to focus on ‘how’ to show up to work every day, not ‘where’.
  • Reimagine team communications – Visible leaders make for more empowered teams. Now that team leaders and chief executives can no longer greet, meet, and discuss issues with their employees, they need to make extra efforts to be seen and heard, and also to listen.  Communication tools like personal blogs, video updates, structured check-ins, mentoring invites, collaboration sessions, and surveys all help to build a communications culture.

A long-term, consistent, and strategic approach to communications will help to build and preserve team culture as we continue our transition to a new type of work.

About the author

Michelle advises clients on digital best practice, trends, audience segmentation, and strategy for the online environment. With over a decade of international experience, she understands how to cut through newsfeed noise and generate bottom-line business results. Before life at 360, Michelle worked in the New Zealand Government and with the UK start-up community.

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