By Stuart R. Levine

Published in, Forbes

Leaders are paying more and more attention to managing and maintaining an effective and healthy culture since COVID-19 is forcing continuing historic change in the workplace. Although the COVID-19 vaccination rollout is helping many aspects of life to slowly return to some semblance of normal, many of the workplace changes that the pandemic brought will remain. For example, central business districts are expecting enduring lower office populations, as companies plan for a substantial portion of the workforce to continue to have some level of off-site employment.

The formal and informal ways that employees interact continue to be in flux, calling for continuous examination and re-examination of the many aspects of organizational culture. Culture starts at the top. Leaders envision it, are the architects of it, and they must manage it. They are champions of culture through their role-modeling and communication. They make sure that the organization has the right structures in place to support productive employee behaviors. More difficult for leaders to understand, work through, and manage, however, are the changing dynamics of the informal networks and unwritten rules that often take precedence over official structures and guidelines.

With employment that is even partially remote, culture is a challenge that senior leadership must get right. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan, addresses this issue head-on in his annual letter to shareholders, noting the deleterious effect of remote work on culture. He describes how creativity can be depressed because colleagues do not interact spontaneously. Learning from others is more difficult as the “apprenticeship model” cannot be readily replicated in a ZOOM world. Decision-making is slowed when meetings are video conferenced because there is little immediate follow-up. When people know each other and already have worked together remote work is more successful, which makes forming new teams and onboarding new employees all the more difficult. Feedback from customers on products and services is muted without human contact, and there are virtually no unplanned client encounters.

Dimon’s observations provide a non-comprehensive list of issues that leaders must address to manage culture as a result of the pandemic. Culture governs employee satisfaction and drives the desire to serve the customer. Every employee’s aim should be to fulfill and try to exceed the customer’s expectations with every interaction. Engaged employees go the extra mile to make things right. The intensely competitive business environment demands it, when today a customer’s view of the company is only as good as their last interaction with it. 

Leadership’s strategic decisions are the starting point for the culture’s foundation. Leaders focus on and communicate, through words and deeds, the norms, values, and ways of doing things within the organization. Importantly, also foundational to culture, employees must have the tools they need to get the job done. Today this involves hardware, software, and learning tools. Strategies around integrating key technologies and workforce development enhances an employee’s workplace experience. These strategies are critical with a fully or partially remote employee base. They work to boost morale, lift engagement, allow people to collaborate more efficiently, and help create fresh management approaches, all serving to enhance the customer experience. 

Strategies that integrate cutting-edge technology with state-of-the-art employee development create tangible measurable results.  IBM Institute for Business Value surveyed about 3000 CEOs and analyzed pre-Covid and during Covid results. IBM’s research found that more tech-savvy organizations materially outperformed their less tech-savvy peers. The outperforming CEOs identified tech infrastructure as a top challenge twice as often as underperforming peers. Technology is more than just a tool for them. It provides forward-looking opportunities, especially from emerging technologies including artificial intelligence and protection against cyber-threats, both of which Dimon identified as essential. Moreover, outperformers saw their revenue growth exceed their competition by on average 6%.  

Today the goal “to delight customers” through people and technology, is an undertaking that no one company can do alone. IBM’s outperformers are laser-focused on their core competencies and rely on outside organizations for other skills and needs. The most successful companies find a true alignment of organizational values with those of the partnering firms. For these companies a culture built on values is essential internally and extends throughout the external ecosystem. Outperformers find that ethics and integrity serve to engage employees and outside partners alike. For external partners, just as with the company’s employees, it all comes back to a culture of values. 

Strategic alignment around values allows for the entire ecosystem to act innovatively and agilely. Technical partners can address issues like cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, while partners with expertise in strategy and culture assist leadership to manage and deal with the altered dynamics of the pandemic. Leadership has a considerable task to create a culture that empowers an effective and productive staff, especially when informal networks and unwritten rules are operating in tandem with official management structures and procedures. Every company has its own unique situation, so leadership’s approach to culture must be tailor-made for maximum effectiveness.

In this novel time, great leaders envision and champion the culture that gets the job done. They harness the experience and determination of internal teams and external experts. They appreciate that their investment in culture will engage their people and drive employee passion to delight the customer with every interaction.