If a tree falls in the forest with no-one there to hear it – does it make a noise?

One thing is for certain; we are in a time of significant uncertainty. Will there be a second peak that sees the country in another national lockdown? Will our town/city/county be forced to self-isolate due to a regional spike? What about our teams in other countries? Will we see parts of our business disrupted whilst others face an easing of restrictions?

All these unknowns are leading companies to review the way they think about work – how do you ensure that cybersecurity and IT measures are appropriate for a workforce that is largely working from home? How to ensure your customer service teams are operating effectively when not in the office? How to drive sales performance or project management efficiency when teams are remote? How to innovate new products when it is challenging to brainstorm as a group?

These challenges, with the appropriate strategic context (which may have changed since COVID), can be partially addressed through tweaks to strategy and structure (systems, processes and policies). But how do you know that the individuals working in these remote and challenging (professionally and through the burden on mental resilience) circumstances are behaving in the way that you would expect in the office? Or indeed, still demonstrating the behaviours you need to deliver against your strategy?

At Coode Associates we believe that the sum of the organisation’s observable, collective and practical behaviours define the culture of the organisation and that the right culture to match your strategy is the biggest enabler of business performance. The biggest multiplier, especially in times of uncertainty. When a team is collocated, or grouped in geographically dispersed teams (and therefore visible to leadership) it is vastly easier to transmit the desired culture and to understand if the culture is being maintained than it is when individuals are working remotely. We are hearing this a lot from the leaders we speak to – no longer can they simply ‘check the pulse’ of the organisation with a walk around the office.

This is where the analogy used in the title of this blog is relevant – If a tree falls in the forest with no-one there to hear it – does it make a noise? A philosophical thought experiment many of us will have come across.

Apply this to the challenge that businesses are facing right now: If an employee is working with no-one there to observe/support them, will they maintain the culture that the organisation needs?

The unintended consequences of remote working

At the start of lockdown, teams pulled together in a kind of “blitz” spirit. Efficiency was not as badly impacted as expected and many organisations took this as a positive sign that working from home could be a sustainable approach to ways of working.

But are there unintended consequences of working from home? Issues that occur regardless of an individual’s commitment to the organisation, especially as COVID does not go away and remote working becomes an enforced new normal.

What about the blurring of lines between personal and professional space? The work filling the time available and bleeding over into time that should be personal? Or the personal time bleeding into the professional? Is the commute, even if relatively short, a healthy barrier between the two? Even if some work needs to be done outside of normal office hours, it is still healthy to have a clear break between the office and home.

Siloed teams are a problem in a lot of office-based organisations, a new normal that embraces remote working for the longer-term could make these silos even more extreme, creating individual silos within silos. How are you supposed to engage colleagues when you cannot grab those quick 5 minutes to address an issue or just to have a connection-building social chat? Additionally, how do you integrate new starters into the team when they are not physically in a team environment?

Perhaps the most concerning issue though is the potential mental health impact – too much time alone without the interaction of other human beings (even if you do have a dog, cat, or gecko) is simply not healthy. Depending on your relationship or the behaviour of your kids – even family could be adding to the stress levels.

All of this combines to create a potential working environment that, despite the best intentions of your team, may not be conducive to the type of culture that you want to maintain or build.

Managing and measuring your culture has never been more important

For all these reasons, whether you already have a clear understanding of your culture today or are thinking about defining it for the future, there has never been a more important time to be explicit about your desired culture. With a remote workforce, less visible role modelling from your leadership team, and a management population that will be grappling to understand what’s needed from them to drive performance, now is not the time to leave your culture to develop organically. Even when teams are co-located, your culture and behaviours need to be well articulated, communicated and reinforced. Imagine how much more critical it is to manage your culture when people are dispersed.

At Coode we work with organisations to help them define the culture they require to deliver their strategy, use data driven tools to diagnose their culture today and then help them to bridge the gap between the two with a focused engagement. Developing the culture you require is not a one-time consulting engagement, it takes time and effort and must be championed from the very top of the organisation. To help organisations and their leadership teams start to think about the culture they require to survive and thrive in the fluid times ahead, we are currently running several Reignition Workshops with clients old and new. Leadership teams are using it as an opportunity to reconnect with one another, review their lessons learned from the crisis so far, and refresh their thinking around the culture they need to support performance, recommitting to what will be required of them as leaders going forwards.

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