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Remote culture


Jennifer Howard-Grenville says maintaining organisational culture while working from home involves far more than just stating company values, in a webinar for the What’s Next? How to Survive and Thrive in a Post COVID-19 World series.

Here’s an opportunity to see her presentation and read key findings:

Webinar: Keeping Your Organisational Culture When You’ve Lost Your Office

Organisational culture is more than a mere “statement of values” but instead reflects the practices and expectations of people working together, says Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville of Cambridge Judge Business School. 

Culture in a company is best considered in the way “an anthropologist would consider a culture: which is the way this group of people go about doing what they do,” Jen told a webinar at the Business School. “Anthropologists study culture – they watch practices – but it’s only by living with people and living like them that we can unpick the beliefs that support these practices.”

The layout of an office – whether it is open plan or has a table football game for staff to use – “is only the physical aspect” that might be suggestive of culture but don’t really capture its more important behavioural elements, she added. 

The webinar entitled “Keeping Your Organisational Culture When You’ve Lost Your Office” was the last in a series of webinars at the School on “What’s Next? How to Survive and Thrive in a Post-COVID-19 World”. 

Jen, the Diageo Professor in Organisation Studies at Cambridge Judge, said remote working appears to be a “real trend that will continue” once the current coronavirus pandemic subsides, and this poses three challenges to organisations and managers in retaining a firm’s culture: at an individual level of socialisation, a group level of cohesion and performance, and an organisational level including issues of productivity and inclusion. 

“The longer we go on with significant amounts of remote working the harder it will be” to draw on the workplace cues we were previously accustomed to. “Face-to-face interaction is important, we’re relational beings, not just doers.”

Drawing on a recent article she wrote in MIT Sloan Management Review, Jen said that one-way managers can help sustain organisational culture remotely is to “call it out – make it visible”. For example, if a good decision arises through excellent group collaboration, remind people about the practice of collaboration, how it supports a cultural belief about how good ideas develop, and how it advances the company goals. 

She also urged managers eager to learn from their employees about how they perceive the firm’s culture not to use the word “culture” because that can elicit slogans – so it’s often better to talk about “how work is getting done” in the organisation, which can yield more practical advice. Ultimately, employees know a lot about what the culture is, not just what it ought to be, and likely have good observations about when it is slipping, or even evolving productively, due to remote work. 

And as workplaces slowly reopen as lockdowns are loosened, Jen urged managers to recognise that as inevitably some staff will rotate in and others will work remotely, they need to “think about opportunities for people” in order to foster inclusion. It’s well established that when some employees are remote and others are in an office, those working remotely feel less involved and their career progression slows. So sustaining a broadly shared culture will be even more crucial in workplaces that may not resemble the old days anytime soon.