This fall, many organizations were hoping to welcome their employees back to the office. But the COVID-19 Delta variant has dashed those hopes, and many companies now plan to continue remote work for the foreseeable future. The good news is that this will help keep employees safe. Delta is highly contagious and poses a risk for both the vaccinated and unvaccinated. And remote work should also reduce turnover. Various studies have found that a notable percentage of employees would rather quit than return to the office.

But is working from home good for company culture? After months of remote work, that’s a significant concern for many executives. In one recent study, we found that 51% of senior leaders are worried that flexible work arrangements will make it difficult to maintain their current culture. Based on various studies, there are valid reasons for such concern. Although remote work can boost performance, reduce stress, eliminate real estate costs and lower greenhouse emissions, it can also lead to several workplace problems. Researchers at Project Include found that remote workers have experienced elevated levels of harassment, work pressure and anxiety over the past year. In a study conducted by researchers at INSEAD, 45% of respondents said camaraderie and teamwork had declined since the start of the pandemic. And in a study of more than 27,000 employees in Japan, researchers found that the more time employees spent working remotely, the lonelier they felt, particularly if they felt unsupported by their managers and coworkers.

To guard against these types of problems, many organizations are conducting comprehensive culture reviews. These reviews often ask organizational members to compare the existing culture with an idealized future culture. This type of gap analysis can be useful when launching a change effort. But it isn’t the best way to get a handle on how an organization’s culture is being affected by current events. To understand how an organization’s culture is shifting in response to internal and external pressures, a different approach is needed.

Many leaders and managers assume cultures should be stable. But the work of cultural theorist Raymond Williams shows this is not an accurate assumption. According to Williams, organizational cultures are dynamic and fluid, shaped by historical precedents and traditions, present-day values and norms, and new trends and challenges. Building on Williams’s theory, psychologist Jane Bryson has shown how researchers can gain deeper insights into cultural dynamics by exploring the interactions between an organization’s historical or remnant culture, its dominant current culture, and its new and emergent culture.

We find this to be a useful framework for helping our clients explore cultural dynamics. If you’re seeking to understand how the pandemic, remote work and other recent events are affecting your organization, we recommend conducting a temporal culture analysis focused on these four questions:

 

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What is your current culture like? Developing an accurate understanding of your current culture is a good place to start. Based on our observations, senior leaders, immediate managers and employees do not always share similar perceptions of their organization’s culture. To bridge this gap, we typically conduct a baseline culture survey that includes a combination of closed- and open-ended questions. Using a set of 50 diagnostic items, we ask organizational members about their perceptions of a wide range of critical topics, including how leaders lead, what types of people get promoted, how decisions are made and what types of behaviors are valued. Then, using various analytical techniques, we develop a culture profile and assess the extent to which a dominant or divergent current culture exists.

 

How has your culture changed over time? Once you have a baseline read on your current culture, the next step is to explore the past. What was your culture a decade or two ago? If your organization was founded more recently, what was it like in the early days? What rituals and traditions, myths and stories have been handed down over time? What artifacts has your company preserved from the past? How would you describe your founder and your subsequent chief executives? By exploring these questions, you can develop a better understanding of your organization’s legacy culture. We typically gather this data through various sources, starting with historical organizational documents and any information that exists in the popular press. Talking with longer-tenured employees — even those who have left the organization or retired — is also helpful and can shed light on how your culture has shifted over time.

 

What new patterns are emerging? Because organizations are complex adaptive systems, new patterns — of thought, of behavior, of conversation — are always emerging. The good news is that our brains are designed to recognize patterns in the external environment. But based on our experience, few organizations ask their employees to share their observations on an ongoing basis. Considering the volatile nature of the business market and the world right now, that is a mistake. If you aren’t listening to and learning from your employees in a systematic way — asking them about their personal experiences and team experiences, their interactions with customers, their read on the state of the business and the world — you’re missing valuable feedback.

We’ve found that the best way to spot trends in an organization is to take an exploratory, multimethod approach. Digital focus groups and online feedback platforms can be used to host large-scale conversations with leaders, managers and employees about their observations. Analyzing metadata is also a powerful way to identify new behavior patterns, especially in today’s virtual work environment. For example, when Microsoft analyzed calendar data and communications patterns within one of its remote teams, they found that meetings had become shorter during the pandemic, and instant messages had become a more common way of communicating.  

 

Where are the tension points? If your organization is like most, these three questions will reveal points of convergence and divergence. For example, you may find that your legacy culture was collaborative and tight-knit when your organization was founded. Over time, this culture evolved into a work-hard, play-hard culture that was effective before the pandemic. But now, in the absence of in-person work, collaboration and camaraderie are waning, and your once-balanced culture has become an isolating grind. And, even more perplexing, you find that while employees miss the community that once existed, they also enjoy the freedom and efficiency of remote work. These are the kinds of complex dynamics we are discovering as we conduct these analyses.

Which legacy cultural elements and traditions anchor your company? Which are holding you back? Which emergent trends are helping your organization increase employee engagement, improve customer service, spark creativity or streamline efficiency? Which are pulling your employees off course? How does your contemporary culture need to change to ensure your organization is prepared for the future of work? We use these questions to help our clients identify their cultural strengths and liabilities and develop a culture evolution plan. 

Organizational cultures are not static. They are constantly in flux, influenced by a range of internal and external pressures and events. By examining your culture through a temporal lens — exploring how your legacy culture, your current culture and your emerging culture are interacting and shaping people’s perspectives — you can develop a better understanding of the steering currents, basic assumptions and tension points that are affecting your leaders, managers and employees and influencing their behavior.

Patrick Hyland, PhD
by Patrick Hyland, PhD

Director of Research and Development, Mercer Employee Research

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