Thinking about New Ways of Working (2020)

Claire Pointing

Thinking about New Ways of Working

Thinking about New Ways of Working

Building healthy organisational culture should be top of every leader’s to do list. 


“The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.” - Rainer Maria Rilke


"The prime challenge of organisational leadership is to create places of work that give people meaning where they can feel truly alive and perform to their very best." - Manfred Kets de Vries


Organisations and leaders are on a journey of discovery. The Covid 19 Pandemic has brought unimagined change to organisations at unprecedented speeds: “We have seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months” (Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft). People and organisations have been “stress tested” to a breaking point and in some cases beyond.


Many organisations have experienced profound short-term challenges which their leaders have been called on to navigate well outside the comfort zone of business as usual and “this is how we do things around here”. After a period of storm like chaos, confusion and short-term arrangements designed to keep things going, leaders and their colleagues are now entering calmer waters and trying to make sense of what has happened, where they are currently are and what happens next?


As leaders begin to look to the future for their organisations there will be a strong temptation to look to clear structures and processes to create a sense of certainty for themselves, their colleagues and their stakeholders. We can already see the emergence of a new language to help us frame the “future” – we are talking about new ways of working; the new normal; hybrid working; semi remote working; talent exchange; digitalisation; the three-day commute. The World Economic Forum has published “Workforce Principles for the COVID 19 Pandemic” and these are all good things to think about and will become established features in the future world of work.


However, before leaders of organisations rush to implement the steps to the future, they need to double check that the cultural foundations of the organisation are still healthy and strong enough to support the organisation going forward. Culture is how and why people work; it is the organisational glue. As leaders plan the future for their organisations, understanding the cultural health of their organisations and teams will be a critical success factor. No one be certain what any organisation will look like in the future – the structures, roles, functions are all up in the air - Leena Nair (CHRO Unilever) has said that in these uncertain times “culture becomes the new structure” as people align to values. Structure and process will give a sense of clarity and security but if the culture is not able to support the upcoming changes and challenges, leaders will struggle to implement sustainable changes.



Six questions every leader should be asking about culture


So how can leaders think about getting their hands around culture when so many parts are still moving? We have identified six questions that every leader should be asking now – from the C-Suite to team leaders. Think of them as the cultural equivalent of checking the structural integrity of your house after it has been hit be a lorry – you might think the house is fine but by checking rather than assuming everything is ok, everyone in the house and passers-by will be safer and you will sleep better.


First: Where are we? The Covid crisis created a lot of “forced” and reactive change in how organisations work. Much of the change has been by necessity reactive to unexpected circumstances, unplanned and delivered in real time. Before leaders prescribe new ways of working it is important to take stock of how these “forced” changes have impacted the organisation and how people are now engaging with the world of work. This quote from the FT is useful to highlight both the opportunities as well as the potential risks of just rolling with the Covid related changes rather than actively testing what they really mean for an organisation’s culture and effective future:


"This cataclysm hit with a velocity for which few companies were prepared. But in the name of ad hoc crisis management, leaders are cutting through red tape, bypassing hidebound hierarchies and redundant rules, speeding up decision-making, radically clarifying priorities, and accelerating long awaited structural, cultural and technological transformation. They are also bound to be triggering a rash of mistakes, missteps and misjudgements. Many of these blunders will not become obvious until later. Most will be easily corrected or reversed. But some practices and structures will linger and may even become embedded in the way organisations continue to work, turning ad hoc into “bad hoc”.  - Andrew Hill, Financial Times 18 May 2020


Second: How do we culturally move out of crisis? As leaders emerge from “forced” decisions and crisis management into a world where “choice” returns in how their organisations work, a critical question will be how do should we invite people into “new” or “old” ways of working? For many this is being seen as primarily a logistical problem to be solved with clear processes – social distancing in lifts; Perspex desk screens; one-way systems and limited canteen access.


How do we manage the opportunities, anxieties and risks of “re-entry”? Underneath the emerging process and directions are people: organisations are untimely “human systems” and the actively addressing the cultural aspects of exiting a state of crisis will determine the lasting success or failure of “new ways of working” There is still an intermediary stage to navigate before sustainable “new ways of working” emerge. Addressing a healthy cultural return requires key questions to be considered such as:


  • Who is invited back to office-based work, who is left/ allowed to stay working from home? These discussions can make some people feel more needed, some left as feeling non-essential.
  • Personal safety and whether returning to physical spaces/ public transport etc make the returning individuals feel at risk?
  • How will people maintain a sense of connection and build effective relations when not everyone returns to an office environment?
  • Are particular groups having to continue to balance additional domestic as well as professional demands such as childcare or lack of appropriate home working space?
  • How do people begin to re-establish boundaries between the personal and the professional after 4 months of blurred boundaries as a result of working from home?


Third: How long will “banked” experience support good ways of working? One point that has come up in recent weeks is that a lot of successful virtual working over the past few weeks has been successful partly because the people “thrown” into a new, virtual work environment have been relying on existing relationships and shared assumptions and established “short cuts” which have been built up over time in the pre-crisis world. This “banked” common experience has been very effective in supporting effective working over the short term. One interesting question will be how to continue to build supportive cultures for working when new people join established teams without the opportunity for real world on-boarding and when new teams are formed that do not have the benefit of pre-established working relationships, shared assumptions, and short cuts about ways of working.


Fourth: What will new ways of working look like? Organisations are in a period of cultural adaptation and transition. The cultural foundations and underlying assumptions of an organisation will be critical in supporting and facilitating a successful transition to the new world of work. The tension between a “new normal” and a pull to return to “business as usual” needs to be discussed – in truth this will not be a binary choice between “how things were” and “new ways of working”. In particular, embedded assumptions about “how we do things here” should be tested. One thing that is highly likely to happen is that many organisations will emerge from Covid with a blend of physical and virtual working. It will be important to be clear about the real drivers that will determine this blend:


  • Costs will be a critical driver (virtual working may reduce physical office costs) but may become damaging to trust if dressed up as “agile working” and flexibility without the ancillary cultural support required;
  • Individual experience - if I worked successfully in a flexible way for the last 4 months why would I go back to a one size fits all way of working?
  • Human connection – I may not want a 5 day a week commute, but I still need some face to face time to keep my working relationship healthy;
  • Organisational anxiety - can we trust a more fluid/ distributed way of working when crisis is not motivating people to engage; Psychological safety will be important to create connection and effective working in areas of work that engage people across physical and virtual spaces.


Fifth: What do we expect from leaders at this time of transition? There is a risk that as we transition out of crisis leaders become idealised and/or are invited to be authoritarian – this risks accidentally allowing a culture of passivity to emerge as individuals seek direction rather that adopt a pro-active mindset to carrying out their roles. It is essential that that individual responsibility and accountability are not lost. If leaders and wider workforces look to contain their anxiety about entering another phase of potential uncertainty by creating unrealistic expectations on leaders and/ or organisational processes organisational agility and efficiency will be sacrificed for an illusion of stability and certainty. Successful leaders will be those who create a clear set of cultural values aligned to strategic direction and empowers others to thrive in our complex and uncertain world.


Sixth: Is there a heightened risk of leader “burn out”? Another area that has also come up in my conversations with leaders is Covid related “burn out”. Crisis plus virtual working plus hard decisions plus none of the usual escapes/safety valves have left a number of leaders seriously stretched and many are running on fumes – Covid has created a period unusual intensity, intellectually and emotionally. When a culture invites “busyness” and everyone is running at 100 miles an hour it takes a brave leader to stop and take stock. Investing time in reflection and sense making can feel like an inactive luxury when everything around you is spinning, but at this time reflection is probably the single most important activity a leader can invest in.



What Next? A simple task for every leader at every level


Every leader and every organisation will currently be undergoing a cultural transition that is unique. Some organisations will already have been well along the road to agile working and a de-centralised leadership style. For others, Covid will have been a massive and unwelcome shock to the system.


The pressure to create clarity as we exit the initial phase of the Covid crisis is understandable and pretty universal – there is only so much uncertainty people can tolerate before it becomes deeply unhealthy. We need processes to move into new ways of working; we need structure to allow people to re-establish boundaries and own and be accountable for their contributions to organisations. We also need to remember to check in on what has happened to the underlying culture of an organisation after months of anything but “business as usual”.


Ultimately every leader should begin this phase of transition not with a plan for lifts and canteens but with the question of curiosity culture:


“What have we left behind? What is emerging? What will we miss in the future if we ignore it now?”


If you are interested in learning more about this topic, KDVI will be running a 6-week open enrolment programme entitled Creating Healthy Cultures for New Ways of Working.


We are also designing bespoke client-specific programmes for organisations who wish to take a proactive approach to the transformations they are experiencing. Enquire here for more information.



KDVI Writer's Colony, 2020

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