Two Years Into The Pandemic, Organizational Culture Is More Important Than Ever

November 10, 2021

Contributor: Mary Baker

Be intentional, and don’t leave your culture to chance, whether your employees are physically co-located or not.

Organizational culture continues to evolve as the COVID-19 pandemic persists. We sat down with Elisabeth Joyce, VP at Gartner, following her ReimagineHR 2021 session, “Ask the Expert: Creating Culture in a Virtual or Hybrid World,” to better understand what organizational culture really is and how HR and executive leaders can and should build it.

What is organizational culture? 

That’s a good question, because many people think of organizational culture as being about the look and feel of their environment. But an organization’s culture is the set of behavioral norms and unwritten rules that shape how employees interact and get work done. Organizational culture is critical to creating the best experience for employees.

Download now: Reinvent Your Employee Value Proposition (EVP) for a Postpandemic Workforce

Is organizational culture top of mind for many HR leaders?

Absolutely. As organizations continue to manage the large-scale shifts in the way we work, organizational culture will become — if it’s not already — top of mind for HR and all executive leaders. Many are concerned that their organization’s culture will suffer or change in a virtual-first or hybrid world, and they’re not sure how to maintain the same cultural ideals when employees don’t consistently work together in one place. 

With employees working in distributed environments more often, executive leaders worry their organization’s culture will become fragmented and weaker, leading to lower levels of engagement, performance and innovation.

How did HR leaders view culture before the COVID-19 pandemic?

Our research shows that before the pandemic, 70% of HR leaders were confident that they knew the culture their organization needed to drive business performance. Still, only 30% were confident that the actual culture of their organization reflected the desired culture. 

In other words, leaders could articulate what they wanted the culture to be (think company values), but they weren’t confident they consistently created an environment that reflected the desired state. It’s all fine to say the organization values innovation, collaboration and trust, for example, but then HR leaders have to ask, “Are innovation, collaboration and trust demonstrated in how we behave and how we treat each other?” 

The reality is there were problems with culture before the pandemic — in terms of workforce awareness and belief in the culture — in ensuring employees were consistently behaving in ways aligned to the desired culture. 

Learn more: The Future of Work Resource Reinvented

Has the move to remote and hybrid work models diluted organizational culture?

Not as far as we can see. Despite the fears of many, our research shows that most employees see the large-scale shift to remote working as a net positive for the culture of their organization, and 76% of newly remote/hybrid employees report a positive perception of the “workplace.” 

Similarly, 64% of hybrid and 66% of remote employees report that their organization’s culture has a positive impact on their job — compared to just 52% of on-site employees.

Do HR and executive leaders need to do more work on organizational culture?

For sure. Organizational culture needs to be strong enough to attract and retain top talent, drive performance and meet business objectives. Fortifying the culture means more than just ensuring employees are satisfied with the organization’s culture; the culture must be strong enough to drive both individual and business performance. It’s also important that we understand how the new environments we are spending more time in — the virtual environment and the home environment — are influencing how we behave given that behaviors are such an important part of culture.

Gartner’s 2021 ReimagineHR Employee Survey reveals that only 18% of employees say they work in an environment marked by a high level of fairness or that employee experience is characterized by being fair. These types of red flags could signal danger ahead for cultures that want to attract and retain talent. We need to make sure that equity is hardwired into our behaviors moving forward.

How can HR and executive leaders achieve the culture they want for their organization?

Our research shows that 68% of executive teams are reevaluating their company’s culture to reflect the new normal of virtual and hybrid work. Leaders will need to consider what their business strategy is and ask what are the two or three things they need to drive success. There isn’t a right or wrong culture — but there are things that leaders must demand in how their teams work together that will drive business success.

The trick is operationalizing the culture and making employees feel connected to it, whether they are distributed or co-located. Many of our conversations with leaders around crafting the organization’s future culture focus on the concern that the physical workplace is the key driver of that connectedness. But the environment isn’t the driver of the culture — rather, the culture is the ways that we behave and work together. So we need to think about how to activate the right behaviors in our planning, irrespective of people’s geographic location. The big piece here is that we do need to deliberately activate culture; we can’t just tell people to behave in a certain way. For example, articulating cultural values just through tangible artifacts — like posting your values on a wall — doesn’t work. We need to get to the “how” of translating culture into what people do every day. 

The organizations that get this right will understand the new drivers of culture and how culture is operationalized in the environments in which we are now spending more time. They will embed culture into the new way of working to help employees understand the desired culture, believe in it, and live it in the new hybrid or remote environment.

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