Home >Opinion >Columns >For an organizational culture around the dining table

In these pandemic times, many companies say they made a success of remote work partly because their employees already knew each other. After years of working together, many can read the facial expressions of colleagues on video calls or anticipate a co-worker’s preferences. Fissures in organizational bonding, thus, have been minimal. But can an organization with a work-from-home policy create a robust organizational culture with a fresh set of recruits?

Culture, the shared mental software that distinguishes members of one group from another, is usually an attribute of nationhood. A nation’s geography and environment play a role in moulding its culture. One is born into a country’s culture and its imprint during one’s formative years can last a lifetime. On the other hand, one’s relationship with an organization’s culture is temporary. A famous study done by Institute for Research on Intercultural Cooperation among IBM employees showed that notwithstanding similarities in practice among people doing similar jobs in its various national subsidiaries, their values differed considerably, depending on their country’s culture. Unlike a national culture, building an impactful organization culture is much more difficult. If this was the situation back when all employees were in the same physical environment, one can imagine how much harder that task would be with most employees working at home.

The fact that cultures are learned and not innate provides a ray of hope for companies. The book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind by Geert Hofstede and Geat Jan Hofstede offers a useful framework for the fostering of a culture among a group of people. The book reminds us that symbols represent the most superficial and values the deepest manifestations of culture, with heroes and rituals in between.

Symbols are the objects, pictures and words that represent an organization. Nations, organized religions and political parties use distinct and consistent symbols drawn from their core values. Organizations keen on a public identity also use a distinct design language that encompasses all visible elements. A global electronics brand that had an inconsistent brand image from one market to another, for example, has transformed itself under a new leader who ensured that the brand had a consistent look across the world.

Heroes are persons alive or dead, real or imaginary who possess characteristics that are prized in a culture. In modern times, successful entrepreneurs are the ideal heroes for an organization to create. Heroes are created with stories that tell of how they achieved success. Many organized religions have condensed their tales of heroes into their holy books. Similarly, organizations should take care to document the real-life stories of how its heroes built the organization. These ‘story books’ can be used as an effective on-boarding tool for new employees and as a culture- reinforcement tool for its existing staff.

According to Michael Suk-Young Chwe, author of Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination and Common Knowledge, rituals are patterned and repetitive activities that transmit meaning from a central source to each member of an audience. Rituals help members of this audience know what other members know, thereby generating ‘common knowledge’ within an organization. With many employees working from their residences, periodic rituals that create such a common base of knowledge and consequent sense of fellowship among team members are of paramount importance. Organized religion reminds us of the value of weekly congregations at a designated place and day. Similar gatherings are useful for firms. For the past 15 years, every Monday evening, my team members have come together to share their new learnings about human behaviour. This weekly ritual has helped emphasize the importance of continuous learning within the organization.

An employee who joins an organization for the first time starts recognizing its values by observing various practices within it. Employees usually best learn the values of an organization from the behaviour of its founders and top leaders. According to Geert Hofstede, the stability of an organization’s culture is based on the stability of its basic values.

Earlier, the dissemination of organizational culture ended with its employees. However, now with employees working from their homes, even their family members know how long office meetings typically last and in what mood an attendee emerges from them. While this is an indirect process, the employee’s official work and family life are getting intertwined. So it makes immense sense to treat family members too as an integral part of the organization. Whether it is a vaccination drive or sports day, organizations should aim to create more occasions for family members to come together.

Earlier, employees would reach office to work and return home to relax. Now, with the homes of employees acting as their workplace, the office should not be a place they come to do more work. Employees should have regular face-to-face interactions with one another to network and forge a stronger sense of fellowship with colleagues. Such routine but casual huddles could replace the traditional ‘water-cooler discussions’.

In the new work environment that is currently evolving around home dining tables, leaders should actively foster the creation of emotional bonds by using a common design language, the stories of heroes, and also a set of rituals and values drawn from real-life examples of behaviour. This, clearly, is the future of organization culture building.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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