We have an opportunity to reset our company cultures in a way that recognizes adaptability, while prioritizing the ways in which our people want to work and live.
In many ways, the pandemic brought us collectively to our knees, both personally and professionally. As we begin to stand back up, it is critical that we rise with intention – assess what’s been broken, what should be left behind, what needs to be reclaimed, what’s been preserved, and what’s been eroded by three years of uncertainty that needs to be rebuilt. For many of us, that includes our firm culture.
While the concept has varied meaning, fundamentally, firm culture includes the systems, behaviors, and values that shape how work gets done. It is the patterns upon which a staff understands how to operate in an organization aimed at producing exemplary work alongside fostering fruitful careers devoid of frustration and rich in personal growth and development.
At its essence, firm culture is the atmosphere we work within – a company climate. An environment that seems to be revealing the same variability as the actual weather in the post-COVID era.
To put it bluntly, we can’t just go back to the way things were and we should stop using that language. That notion fails to acknowledge that the world has fundamentally changed – that people, our workforce, are forever changed.
Admittedly, entertaining this mindset leaves a lot of people feeling frustrated that we can’t just pick up where we left off. But to move forward, we must acknowledge that “back to normal” is an elusive and impossible goal – the exact reason many of us are finding ourselves caught in a reckoning of sorts, realizing the tension of trying to fit a picture of what was onto a future landscape that won’t support it anymore.
The good news about transitioning into a more permanent hybrid format is that we get a reset. A (hopefully) once in a lifetime opportunity as a result of a global pandemic to rethink how we do things, and to change how we come together, how we support each other, and how we work together – in whatever way “together” has come to mean.
That is both exciting and hopeful, albeit intimidating.
Good leaders will take this moment to embrace these challenges and demonstrate new insight and understanding from the last 33 months, forging a path to the future that looks quite different than a return to “normal.”
While leaders by definition can and should spearhead change, it takes people on all levels of an organization to enact a new way forward. Many of us, leaders included, are just searching for solid ground in a hybrid world and we should acknowledge our shared struggles across all levels. This time of uncertainty and change demands open, honest communication, collaborative troubleshooting, and a firm culture that ardently supports that.
By definition, culture is just an umbrella term – a word used to describe the collective behavior of a group of people. There can’t be a separation between our work and our culture, and so we shouldn’t speak of it as an add-on. This idea that culture is something external to how and what we work on every day is simply false. We always have a culture. And each of us participates in it every single day we show up as an employee of an organization.
Cultural shift takes time and good culture requires constant energy and attention, because it’s ever present. It’s not a project or something you can complete, something you can sign up for, an event you can go to, or even something you can easily fall out of in the day-to-day because, by definition, it is the day-to-day.
In that light, maintaining firm culture becomes as simple as asking how we show up for each other day-in and day-out in a way that builds an environment such that both our work and our people can thrive.
Admittedly, picturing that in a hybrid world is uncharted territory. Remote work adds elements of chaos to what was previously more defined by boundaries and physical presence. In that sense, hybrid has almost presented a lack of control.
This current crossroads shouldn’t be surprising when you consider that lockdown accelerated the dismantling of a work system that has been growing upon itself for a century, so of course we don’t know what to do – but we can question how we’re doing it.
We can ask ourselves: What role can our culture play in helping our people feel greater control, not just in their work but in their lives? And how will we move forward as a hybrid workplace that embraces culture rather than one that views it as an add-on?
The highest imperative right now is simply getting all employees to share the value that culture is important to their organization. While we don’t know what that looks like in a hybrid world just yet, we have to be willing to go on that journey together.
It is essential that we take this opportunity to reset in a way that builds an intentional company culture, one grounded in the realities of a hybrid workplace, and one that recognizes adaptability, while deliberately defining and prioritizing the ways in which people in our organizations want to interact, exist, and behave.
Moving forward, our cultures have to be different than they were in March 2020, simply because, as we enter March 2023, we are different.
Jodie Quinter, AIA, is an intermediate architect at FXCollaborative Architects LLP. Connect with her on LinkedIn.