Smoke and Mirrors or Culture

What’s connecting your team and will it hold?

Somewhere in the last two weeks our working lives got flipped, turned upside down (if you don’t mind me unashamedly paraphrasing the Fresh Prince of Bel Air). So after years of developing and nurturing culture – of curating ways of working together – what does it mean when everything changes overnight, and will your culture weather this storm?

All the Chatty Cathys

All the chatter at the moment is about ‘video conferencing’, ‘wrangling pets’ or ‘the seven clever ways to manage virtual teams’, but there’s much more to work than our equipment, the speed of the internet, or what to put behind your head during a zoom meeting. Work is much more fundamental than that.

You see, we’ve been ‘working together’ for 60,000 years.

‘Work’ is our contribution to community, our participation in society, and our belonging to something bigger and more interesting than just ourselves.

Ask anyone who wants to work and can’t, and they’ll give you the emotion that goes with that simple word ‘work’ and what it really means. Sure, it’s about paying the bills and contributing, making a difference, having an impact, but it’s also about belonging, being included, turning up, being part of something. It’s about giving our best, so it becomes part of who we are.

What is ‘good culture’

When you ask a person to describe the culture in their business, you can always tell a good one – a deeply connected one – from a superficial one.

The superficial one is all about events, and flash-mobs, and showy demonstrations of expensive creativity. It’s curated history, told in brochures, and famous people at the top that make great speeches.

A good one can have all those things, or not, but it is described in the belief in the work, the way you treat each other, how you feel, and how important it is for you to turn up and be part of it. It’s about being appreciated and included. It’s about the confidence to give your best, and caring about every person next to you.

What Do We Think Matters?

We know what matters to people at work. We’ve researched it, surveyed it, mapped it, measured it, watched it and built it.

It’s these four things:

  • Purpose: Meaningful work
  • Relationships: People who care that you turn up
  • Agency: Freedom to do it your way, and the trust that you’ll get it right
  • Accountability: Playing a role that people rely on

All built on a foundation of fairness of opportunity and possibility.

The rest, as they say, is smoke and mirrors.

So, How Does Your Culture Connect?

 A good culture is held in the work you do, and in the relationships between people, but you need every element working well.

At a very grounded level, you need every leader understanding the Purpose, and why the work matters. And they need to be able to engage their whole team on why it’s meaningful.  You need every person clear on trust and inclusion and belonging, creating relationships that build confidence for people to not only give their best, but share a bubble tea when they do. You need agency and freedom accessible to all, so people can choose how they work. And you need people to be clear on why their piece matters and that everyone is counting on them, and that’s accountability.

Do you need Mardi Gras Floats, New Year’s Dragons, cupcakes, public prizes telling everyone ‘you’re the best’, and gazillions of dollars spent on LinkedIn profiling how good you are? Well, everyone loves a party, but that’s not where its at.  All these things are applause for the few lucky souls who get to do the PR roles in Head Office. For everyone else they’re a momentary warm feeling, or a nice photo to put on Instagram, so when someone at a BBQ disses their employer, they can say “but we have parties”.

And Overnight the World Changed

There’s a long way for this to play out, but we already know that literally, everything changed. A global pandemic hit every country and everybody left the workplace. We went home. We logged on and read a million blogs about how to stay connected, but we really needed to know what we’re connecting to. When we leave the building, cupcakes, dragons, and prizes are all gone. It’s you and your work, and the relationships with the people you work with, and how much energy you’re happy to put in to seeking people out when they’re not right next to you. How committed you are to being a great participator on zoom, for hours on end, when you can’t stretch your legs? All the casual unwritten rituals of shared banter, a coffee, and a ribbing about your poor choices on Spotify, are all uprooted.

Can they be built ‘virtually’? Sure, but you’ll need to give it some thought, and all that comes to the cultural plasticity.

Why do we call it Cultural Plasticity?

If you’ve been to a business conference in the last ten years, someone would have jumped up and talked about Neuroplasticity, usually with a small rubber brain, with the hemispheres oddly velcro’ed together. It describes the ability of the brain to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections. It allows us to cope with tiny things when we need to think differently, and to deal with the massive changes required after an injury or illness.

Plasticity is therefore a perfect word to describe culture that can reorganise and reform to cope with constant societal shifts and also with massive jarring changes,  like the one we have now. While we’re all still a bit giddy with jokes about wearing PJs on zoom and not having to commute, the reality is a little different. This is not ‘flexible remote working’. This is being forced to work by yourself in your house, and not being allowed to see or hang with a colleague or go for a coffee or a glass of wine after work, or even to wander over to their desk and have a laugh.

In some cases, this is being stood down from your team, and not being included or paid for some unknown period of time. How much will that disconnection impact your team’s long term connection to your ‘culture’?

How is your Cultural Plasticity?  

How much can you jolt your culture into a totally new way of working and have it hold? Well, we’re about to find out.

All the big showy rituals are gone. There’s no one there to see them.

The little rituals are gone too, but they can sort of be replaced with ‘virtual’ ones – you can raise a coffee mug and share a moment.

But the big things – purpose, relationships, agency and accountability, well, they’ll be tested.

  • Purpose of work will need to be crystal clear already, and if it is, it will hold.
  • Relationships, and every single person’s role in culture, will be more critical than ever, and please note that they are broader than your immediate team. They’re your network and your friends in the next team. Time will tell whether they matter enough that you bother to find new ways to connect.
  • Agency is gone. People have to work this way and no other. No choices, and every day is pretty much the same as lockdowns set in across the globe.
  • And accountability, and appreciation, and not working til you drop, because there’s nowhere else to be, will all fall to leaders who can’t easily keep an eye on the team. They’ll have to find new ways to check in, a single point of contact via the laptop in planful ways (logging on to zoom) as opposed to spontaneous. And there will be a new (potentially uncomfortable) closeness to your team (as they see the kids, dog, and partner all go wandering by).

You’ll have to work harder than ever to bring these to life with every person locked up alone. And if people are also stood down and disconnected even further from the team, well, you’re going to need to think very carefully and probably creatively about how you continue to hold a place in their heart long after that last ‘on hold’ conversation. 

It’s easy to say “we’re all in this together”, but you might just to find ways to make that real.   

Wishing you well.