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Is organizational culture the hero or villain of your pandemic story?

It’s time to test whether cultures that are better aligned to strategy execution are helping companies respond to COVID-19.

Corporate culture, enabled by strong leadership, has never been more important for organizations than in this past year, as COVID-19 forced drastic changes in the workplace. That leadership, though, wasn’t just from the people at the top; equally important were the informal leaders down through the ranks who embody an organization’s culture, help hold teams together, and motivate people to get things done. As the Polish film director and screenwriter Krzysztof Kieślowski once said, “If culture is capable of anything, then it is finding that which unites us all.”

In some respects, then, it is somewhat ironic that, before the pandemic, people said they were increasingly unhappy with their organizational cultures. In our 2018 global culture survey, people told us they wanted the status quo to change and in short order. Now, it seems, faced with so much change, people are worried about and/or mourning the loss of those very same workplace cultures. In PwC’s latest survey of chief human resources officers, 41 percent said they were concerned that working virtually was weakening culture; the main reasons appear to be burnout, lack of trust, and continued uncertainty.

The fact is, there are always going to be crises. The megatrends and strategic inflections that cause leaders to rethink culture will not go away when the pandemic is under control. Organizations will continue to navigate unprecedented disruption, including the potential for more pandemics, the fight for equality, the rapid adoption of technology, climate change, and more. This means that employees and leaders will continually be asked to work and lead in new ways.

Future success requires ongoing shifts in “the self-sustaining patterns of behaving, feeling, thinking, and believing that determine ‘how things get done around here.’” That’s the definition of culture we use at the Katzenbach Center, the institute for culture, leadership, and teaming at Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting group. So, tapping into culture to accelerate the adoption of new skills, workplace norms, and behaviors that fuel performance is clearly still on the agenda, and with an urgency never before seen in the modern era.

Observations and reflections

When it comes to proactively managing and evolving organizational culture, conventional wisdom might suggest that the “rules” have changed because of the pandemic. On the contrary, we have long espoused that an organization’s culture is deeply rooted and slow to evolve. But swift changes can come about with a targeted focus on a critical few behaviors, and the year 2020 bore this out in four ways.

Adaptability. During the pandemic, many organizations demonstrated the ability to transform almost overnight and adopt new behaviors and ways of working very rapidly. What was it in their cultural DNA that enabled them to do this while other companies struggled? Are there specific traits that helped some companies adapt faster and emerge stronger? Can those traits be “bottled up” and replicated in a post–COVID-19 world?

If culture is the organizational fabric that holds people together, has COVID-19 caused tears in that fabric, and if so, how does one fix them?

Teaming. COVID-19 also affected how we work in teams. At the Katzenbach Center, we had to rely more than ever on the daily interactions within our smallest organizational unit — a “real team” — to keep us motivated and figure out how to work under stressful conditions. What kind of culture best promotes that kind of teaming? How much difference did having a strong sense of purpose make in helping weather the storm and tap into the pride and emotional commitment that already existed within the culture?

Productivity. Employers are talking about the unexpected silver linings of increased productivity levels, faster decision-making, and bursts of innovation to meet new customer needs. But will these changes amount to a sustained shift in the corporate culture in the longer term? Or will the “old culture,” those deeply entrenched ways of leading and working, quickly catch up to and cannibalize these new patterns as the crisis subsides? Without the pandemic exerting daily pressure on organizational settings and behaviors, will the inherent inertia in organizational culture see a reversion to type?

Caring. In our 2018 organizational culture survey, workers and leaders greatly disagreed on whether the way people act every day is consistent with what they say about the organization’s culture, indicating a gap between words and deeds. More recent surveys show that employees say they are happy with the new flexibility and the caring responses demonstrated by many employers. Have the events of the past year, with the resulting emphasis from leadership on transparency, communication, and caring, succeeded in closing this gap? Has COVID-19 increased trust in employers or weakened it further?

Looking ahead

We — and many of our clients — are very curious about all of these things. So we have launched a 2021 study to find out more. What can the past year teach us about an organization’s resilience and adaptability to crisis? What will the key levers and actions be that best catalyze behavior shifts in the new normal? If culture is the organizational fabric that holds people together, has COVID-19 caused tears in that fabric, and if so, how does one fix them?

If you would like to contribute to this global study of corporate cultures in flux, you can take our survey here. Check back with strategy+business for more insights when we report on the results in May.

Author profiles:

  • Reid Carpenter is global lead of the Katzenbach Center, a global institute for organizational culture and leadership at Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business. Based in New York, she is a managing director with PwC US.
  • Varya Davidson is the joint capability leader for culture, leadership, and change and a member of the global leadership team at the Katzenbach Center. Based in Sydney, she is a partner with PwC Australia.
  • Christopher Hannegan specializes in transformational change and culture and is a member of the U.S. leadership team at the Katzenbach Center. Based in Chicago, he is a principal with PwC US.
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