Post COVID business culture: the great reconstruction in the mess

Depending on who you listen to, the business culture will either be the big winner or the big loser of the pandemic exit, the day it arrives. It is true that it has played a big role in the ability of businesses to get through this troubled period, but it is also likely to emerge in shambles.

In fact, corporate culture is just like remote working: employees and businesses value it, but not for the same reasons. And sometimes without talking about the same thing.

Corporate culture during COVID: a resilience factor

The business culture has played a great role in avoiding the disintegration of the collective during the pandemic and especially during the confinement and remote working phases. It is not for nothing that businesses have organized themselves and operated differently overnight.

Finally, it all depends on which culture we are talking about. In businesses (and there are more than we think) where the culture is based on control and leaves little or no autonomy to the employee, this has been more difficult.

A culture must be maintained

Today, when businesses look at a more normal situation, and especially when we talk about the return to the office or the future of the workplace, culture plays an important role in their discourse. Why is this?

Because if it played its role from a distance, it would need to exist and spread (note the use of the conditional) that people spend time together, in the same place.

This is as true for businesses for which forced remote working has gone relatively well as it is for others.

Indeed it is not illogical to think, for some, that for the business culture to work remotely it must be created in the office.

And it is no more illogical for others to think that if things have gone wrong it is precisely because distance and culture do not mix.

What corporate culture are we talking about?

Which raises a real question that no one agrees on. If it is worth coming back to the office to maintain the corporate culture, what culture are we talking about?

  • The one that has allowed some businesses to do better than others?
  • Of the one that made others fail but, too bad, since we don’t want to change that we won’t go towards hybrid work?
  • An evolved version of the “pre-covid” corporate culture compatible with the forms of work to come because “our culture of before is not totally soluble in the world of tomorrow”?
  • The real corporate culture, the one that the employees have experienced and developed during this ordeal?

Corporate culture and counter-culture

When we talk about corporate culture, there is often a big gap between what companies say it is and what employees perceive it to be.

The truth is that the business culture, the real one, is what the employees live. And if they live something different than what is written in the official communication, it is not their fault. There are many reasons why corporate culture has been lost along the way between the leadership’s theory and the practice in the field, but talking about it deserves an article by itself. However, it is interesting to observe what can happen when the gap becomes too big.

If the corporate culture does not materialize to the employees’ expectations, or if it does not suit them, we can see islands of counter-culture emerge in which, on a more or less large scale, the employees create their own culture. Or, to be more precise, a counter-culture emerges from the desire of employees to stick together on a daily basis, to live together a better experience than the one their business and management gives them. This is often the case in businesses with a culture of demands that can border on a certain form of violence, those where it is misused by middle management, or those where, since nature abhors a vacuum, something is created spontaneously on the field.

Because, once again, let’s not forget: the corporate culture is not decreed but is the result of what is lived on a daily basis. It can only be noticed. Hence, sometimes there is a gap between what leaders think it is, what is embodied locally or globally by managers and what employees experience or try to create at their level.

Did a corporate culture emerge during COVID?

The day everything goes back to normal, businesses will realize that their employees have changed. That the post-Covid employee will be more adamant about what he or she expects from the business. But they will also sometimes discover that a new culture has been put in place.

Confined, isolated, distant, with a manager who was sometimes absent or overwhelmed by events, if the business continued to function and sometimes not so badly, it was often because the employees showed solidarity and managed at their level, with the means at hand.

To believe that all this will disappear with a wave of a magic wand is an illusion. If corporate culture is what we experience at work with others, the least we can say is that employees have experienced something strong! And sometimes without or without the knowledge of their managers. And like a sports team returning from a victorious World Cup campaign, they have won their trophy and created together a story that is theirs and that no one can take away from them.

A culture and the practices it entails are born and there is no turning back.

A positive but out-of-control culture

Which is, however, an excellent thing. Because what has emerged is often made of solidarity and “care”. It has sometimes given life to intentions that were not previously materialized. Or in other cases it has counterbalanced a toxic culture that will have the greatest difficulty in regaining its footing in the future. This can only reassure leaders.

But this will cause two problems.

The first is that this “spontaneous” culture is not under the control of the business, which has often done nothing to make it happen. And it can therefore continue to mutate without control, which will worry some.

The second is that some managers who were deviating from the corporate culture will find organized resistance.

Post COVID corporate culture(s)

The businesses will thus have to operate the synthesis between :

  • Their culture as they see it and thought rightly or wrongly that it was expressed until the pandemic
  • A “target culture” adapted to hybrid work when necessary. We can no longer make the office one of the prerequisites for the existence and diffusion of a corporate culture.
  • What has emerged on the ground and belongs to the employees.

This in itself would not be so difficult if, before the pandemic, there was not sometimes a gap between the desired culture, projected by the official discourse, and the real culture expressed on the ground. Not to mention business values, another not-so-distant subject that will also have to be put through the “post-pandemic crash test”.

So yes, something new will emerge from all this. But to believe that it will only come from above would be a mistake, just as it would be a mistake to think that it can only be built around office attendance.

Image : Corporate culture by Supavadee butradee via Shutterstock

In this series :
The post COVID business: myth or reality?
COVID has not been a change agent but an excellent consultant
The post COVID employee: an one-unseizable person market
The post-covid manager: more indispensable and lost than ever.
The post covid organization: flatter, agile, flexible and fast.
Post-covid operations: formalized, simplified, automated and people-centric
The post covid workplace: hybridization in pain.
Post COVID business culture: the great reconstruction in the mess
Post COVID business values: a lot of promise and little effect
The post-Covid Digital Workplace: ATAWAD and open to all
Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
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