How to protect culture and develop individuals in dispersed teams

How to protect culture and develop individuals in dispersed teams

[ 9 min read ]

As lockdown measures are relaxed across the UK, businesses must come to terms with new ways of operating. The pandemic has put companies under unprecedented strain, forcing many to undergo rapid internal restructuring and putting pressure not only on finances but on work culture, too. What effect, if any, will this have in the long run?

We’ve rounded up four tips from the episode COVID-19 and Organisational Culture: L&D Blind Spots in Dispersed Teams from our new insight series, Scaling From The Edge. Here we explore how COVID-19 has tested organisational culture and highlighted ways firms now need to adapt to support their teams in an increasingly dispersed working environment.

 

THE PANDEMIC ENABLES BUSINESSES TO TEST CULTURE, BUILD RESILIENCE AND CREATE CAREER DEFINING DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITIES

Is a company’s culture its most prized asset? According to a recent survey by global jobs site Glassdoor, 56% of workers believe a healthy company culture will make them happier at work than earning a higher salary, while three-quarters of those polled said they’d consider a firm’s culture before applying to work there.

So when Sankalp Chaturvedi, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Leadership at Imperial College Business School, says that the environmental shock of COVID-19 has shaken culture to the core, this is an opportune moment to test your company’s mettle. “Culture is something that ties people together,” he says, pointing out that those firms that were demonstrating plenty of flexibility and resilience before the lockdown are the ones emerging from this phase of the pandemic in the best shape.

For Charles Mindenhall, Co-Founder of digital venture builders Blenheim Chalcot, this survival phase has been particularly revealing. He asserts that the will to survive often reinforces a company’s culture and galvanises its workforce.

“When your back’s against the wall and you’ve got to focus on what really matters, you tend to work out who’s on the team and who isn’t, and also what the key behaviours are that need to be exhibited, hence the cultural kind of behaviours that are important in a business. What I found during the survival phase was it really proved which companies had a strong culture and which ones didn’t.”

Resilience, he argues, is too often a boardroom buzzword, a hard-won quality that leaders seek to build in their businesses and inspire in their employees. In one stroke, the virus has shown what resilience is. “You can give lessons on it as much as you like, but there’s nothing like living through a period in which you have to be resilient. It teaches you that you can be resilient – you can get through dark and difficult times.”

Neil Herbert, Chief Finance and People Officer at Salary Finance, reasons that this period of transition companies are undergoing could be framed as a moment that creates real opportunity. As an example, his firm acquired a competitor as COVID-19 struck, leading to “some exciting CV-worthy projects for people to get involved in that have a real impact on the business”. Such real-life development opportunities, he says, can be more valuable than structured training.

 

THE ROLE OF LEADERS IS DRAMATICALLY DIFFERENT TO EFFECTIVELY SUPPORT A DISPERSED TEAM

As workers continue to do their jobs from home, leaders must contend with a new set of issues as companies find their priorities shifting. While the pressure of being under lockdown has eased, the need to emerge unscathed from this survival phase and negotiate a way out of recession creates another kind of pressure.

Bosses should be aware that in all likelihood their team is tired, Sankalp says, suffering from lockdown fatigue as the boundaries evaporate between work and home life; the work-life balance has become the work-work balance and weekdays blend into weekends. Currently social distancing is the only vaccine, Sankalp warns, and until one is found the workplace will continue to be dispersed, a situation the leader must learn to manage. For this reason, it’s vital that leaders are trained to empathise virtually with their employees one-on-one.

“53% of leaders are finding that remote leadership is dramatically different to leadership in a physical world. We might have to learn more skills that go beyond what we thought was traditionally important,” says Sankalp, citing recent research he’s undertaken. “Listening becomes extremely important in a virtual world, and the emphasis is on actively listening. It’s not the physical presence of me looking at you, but it’s about how much I engage with you. That kind of nonverbal aspect of leadership is important.”

Neil underlines the value of communication in the virtual workplace. “We’ve been much more deliberate in providing regular updates and business context as well as creating opportunities to listen to feedback and answer the questions that are on people’s minds. It’s important that we give clarity where we can, such as setting clear goals, whilst also being honest about the uncertainties and things we don’t know.”

Forward-planning and a positive attitude are essential for scaling companies emerging from this phase of the pandemic, he adds. While it’s easy to see the disadvantages you may have as a scale-up, if you change your frame, new opportunities can arise from these challenges. What hindered you can also drive creativity and innovation.

 

AN URGENT NEED TO DRAW THIS PHASE TO A CLOSE AND GET READY FOR WHAT’S NEXT

If we are entering the ‘new normal’ post-lockdown, we should formally acknowledge this transition in order to draw that phase to a close and move on, Charles says. “We’ve all had elements of pandemic fatigue over the last few weeks. We’ve had to go through this tremendously complicated and challenging time, but now we can think about how we might move into phase two and what that might require, and give people a chance to get their heads around it.”

As Neil pointed out, this is the ideal time to look beyond the obvious obstacles and view the situation from a fresh perspective. For Charles, curiosity is key. Our natural propensity for problem solving will come to the fore. “People are looking around thinking, right, how do I operate in this new world? Where are my opportunities to succeed?”

Operating effectively in this new coronavirus world requires businesses to pause for a moment to adapt and adjust their skills and capabilities. Identifying a strategy for the future becomes an interesting challenge because both the business and the market context have changed. “We need a new kind of plan for the business, but it also needs to think about the capabilities and support that people need in those businesses,” says Charles.

At this point, taking stock of your assets – including company culture and employee wellbeing – is crucial. “It’s been fairly all-encompassing and now there is an opportunity to pause for breath, for people to take a break. Make sure we do that because this is going to carry on for some time,” he says. As leaders, one way to help your organisation is by creating these agreeable conditions. “Looking after people’s mental and physical wellbeing in order for them to be productive as you go into the next phase is going to be very important.”

Similarly, Neil believes that as we enter the next phase of the crisis, it’s essential to set clear goals and priorities for people for the second half of the year. The panic may be over, he warns, but we’re not yet back to normal, so we should proceed with caution while working out how to behave. Naturally agile scale-ups are well-positioned to ride the corona wave.

“You can spend your time thinking about the structural disadvantages you have against the incumbents in your market, or you can change your frame and use those constraints as drivers and inspirations for creativity and inspiration and innovation,” he says, suggesting that this is a good moment to motivate staff by addressing the real-life advantages of being part of a team that is helping to navigate a business through this crisis. “I think that the crisis is an ideal time to challenge your frame and look for the opportunities to do things differently and to disrupt markets.”

 

AN ADAPTABLE, FLEXIBLE CULTURE AND AGILE MINDSET WILL SUPPORT YOUR SURVIVAL

Hosting the event, Mark Sanders, Scale Space’s executive chairman, points out that being forced to deal with a crisis such as this tends to either bring people together or smashes them apart. Survival depends on an organisation’s ability to adapt quickly. “Some scaling organisations in that [first] phase tend to be predisposed to be more agile. So the idea of culture coming to the fore, even perhaps accidentally, I think is fascinating,” he says.

Charles agrees that those companies that successfully negotiated the first phase of the pandemic were those that had a culture of flexibility and key personnel who possessed an agile mindset. Thanks to the calibre of the workforce and a strong company culture, these organisations are able to adapt to uncertain conditions and are likely to see out the recession, too.

“What I found during the survival phase was it really proved which companies had a strong culture and which ones didn’t,” he says. “When your back is against the wall and you’re in survival mode, what really matters in that organisation? Does everyone panic, does everyone run around like headless chickens?

“What we saw in the vast majority of companies were great examples of people becoming very productive and working closely together, working much more closely than perhaps they ever had before.”

Although working remotely, Charles says that in their virtual realm these employees lived out some of the company aspirational values, those office slogans intended to inspire, because they were well placed to act on opportunity. It was this focus on survival that really exhibited whether those behaviours were true or not, he says.

Having safely navigated the turbulence of the first phase of the pandemic, Neil believes the community has adjusted and adapted to the new ways of working with much increased collaboration and communication. A dispersed workforce needs more resourceful stewarding. “Now we need to think how we adopt a rhythm for the future that makes sense for the businesses that we’re investing in and operating.”

Looking ahead, Charles says the crisis has created a need for more learning and development. “I think the time has come to work out what the right kind of learning and development is that you’re going to provide to people to help them tackle the next phase of whatever it is that’s in front of us.”

 

Watch the talk in full

Our second episode focused on COVID-19 and Organisational Culture: L&D Blind Spots in Dispersed Teams’ with Mark Sanders, Executive Chairman of Scale Space, joined by Charles Mindenhall, Co-Founder of Blenheim Chalcot, Neil Herbert, Chief Finance and People Officer at Salary Finance and Sankalp Chaturvedi, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Leadership at Imperial College Business School.

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