The DNA of Work

Virtual culture - it's intentional

August 17, 2021 Season 1 Episode 7
The DNA of Work
Virtual culture - it's intentional
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Is organisational culture wholly connected to physical buildings and experiences? Or can we sustain the things that are important – our purpose and values – virtually? Why are many managers so concerned that culture will be damaged if people don’t return to the office?

We consider what culture is (“the way we do things around here”) and how it has been linked consciously to office locations in the past, and that now perhaps there’s a need to decouple that connection and intentionally think about how we can embed the important values within our virtual working practices and behaviors.

Clearly culture isn’t forged in the same way when we aren’t together in the same place, and as with many aspects of managing and working virtually, there is a need to think more deeply and to be more focused and deliberate about the way we reinforce and demonstrate the important aspects of culture.

Continuing our series of interviews with AWA’s global team, Celeste Tell, our Senior Associate in the Pacific Northwest talks about the “musical chairs” movement of people in and out of Seattle, as they find new places to live, now they can work remotely. She also reinforces the notion of addressing culture intentionally and embedding those intangible aspects into the virtual working environment. 

 AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 

 AWA Guest details:  

 Pamela Hinds and Brian Elliott HBR article quoted: 


AWA contact: Andrew Mawson  

Advanced Workplace Associates:     


AWI contact: David Smalley 

Advanced Workplace Institute:   

Music: courtesy of  

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00:00:02 Karen Plum

Hello everyone. This episode focuses on organizational culture and whether it's possible to develop and sustain it when we work remotely. Do we need an office to contain our culture or is it the people that make the culture? Let's find out what our guests think.

INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience, helping organisations change the way they work, for the better.

00:00:46 Karen Plum

Having a keen eye for trends in the ‘return to the office’ debate, I'm always interested in the things people say in defence of the in-office culture. Many people, including lots of senior executives and middle managers, say that it's impossible to maintain organizational culture when you work apart.

So if people don't come to the office, the culture will unravel or go in a direction that nobody intended. People say this as a statement of absolute fact as opposed to their view, and as such it very often kills any debate. 

But let's go back to basics. What do we mean by organizational culture? There have been lots of definitions, but one I particularly like is that culture is “the way we do things around here”. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? Here's AWA’s Andrew Mawson.

00:01:35 Andrew Mawson

I think culture is very much about collective and community behaviors and values.

00:01:41 Karen Plum

Looked at more deeply, culture reflects the purpose, values and beliefs that underpin the way an organization operates in terms of how people work together, how they're managed, and how decisions are made. You've probably heard the quote from author and academic Peter Drucker that culture eats strategy for breakfast and that really shows that without a strong, healthy corporate culture, we struggle to deliver our strategic objectives.

Culture shows us the norms of behavior that an organization endorses and enables people to understand the organization that they work for. It shouldn't be thought about as a static concept. It changes in subtle ways over time and there should be regular reviews to ensure that it's aligned to our purpose and our values, so that they don't get out of step.

A sense of culture pervades everything we do. If people are committed to organizational purpose and values, these will flow through into the way we do things. If they don't, there will be a disconnect and a sense of, well, people say one thing and do another - and that breaks trust.

Given the importance of culture, it's understandable that managers and executives worry that it could be diluted or fragmented by people working apart. The argument goes that people only get to understand the culture through being together with others in the office. It implies that the building exudes the culture and having people away from the building is detrimental to maintaining an effective cohesive culture. But is that really true?

Here's my colleague Lisa Whited.

00:03:18 Lisa Whited

The office is a container for your culture and when all your people left that container was empty and it was sitting there like an empty hermit crab shell. Its heart wasn't there, its heart is its people.

00:03:31 Karen Plum

Andrew agrees, here's what he says.

00:03:33 Andrew Mawson

When you go to a physical place, if it's been designed carefully, it does emit signals about the organization, which hopefully then reinforce what you're about. But I think the absolute need for a building to create culture and reinforce culture for me isn't right.

00:03:52 Karen Plum

Office settings and the modes of behavior they encourage have provided important signals of how things are done around here from the level of formality in the settings, so relaxed comfy furniture, cafe settings versus formal meeting rooms with tables and chairs, to the provision of chill out areas for having fun and unwinding. Seeing how other people dress and behave also sends signals about acceptable behavior.

Here's Catherine Lamson from MEMIC speaking at a recent AWA webinar.

00:04:23 Catherine Lamson

I am a more senior person, having been here for a very long period of time. I know what the culture is, I can feel it. I know when I walk in the building what the culture is by the furnishings, by the look, by the comments of my coworkers, and I think it is certainly helped to send that culture out to the next group when they're here. But if you're communicating appropriately, is it supported by the office or is it supported by the people?

00:04:54 Karen Plum

So what happened when everyone was sent to work from home in the spring of 2020? Did organizational culture just stop? Did all the new recruits that have never been into the office really not get to understand their organisation’s culture? Of course not. You can absolutely learn a huge amount about an organization, by the way people work together virtually.

But that said, as with many things we learned since the start of the pandemic, we have to do things differently. We have to be mindful about the things that are different about working apart and put steps in place - activities, initiatives, communications, to ensure that the things that are important continue to flourish.

One of our webinar guests, Robin Shapiro from TWA/World Health put it this way.

00:05:43 Robin Shapiro

It's almost a generic environment that we're in right now where the culture has to be set every single day, and I think those who are on the frontlines are really the middle management for that, in terms of how we live, our values, how we make our decisions, we are given an opportunity to explain why a decision is made, but again, in this very forced environment of looking at your screen all day, those really have to be done with intention.

00:06:11 Karen Plum

So reinforcing culture virtually might feel harder, but Robin definitely got the right word – “intention”. Here's Andrew.

00:06:21 Andrew Mawson

One of the things that we've discovered through our own research is that social cohesion is the most important factor within knowledge-based communities, and I think in the past, organisations have thought that that would just happen by people turning up in the same space, and I don't think it did happen, and I don't think it happens now and I think the word intentionality is really important because I think what you have to now start thinking about, if you're running a business, you have to be thinking about - what are the things that I can do to enable people to connect at a personal and a business level?

And when I say that I don't just mean within the team, you know, I mean across teams up and down the organization.

00:07:01 Karen Plum

Research by Pamela Hinds from Stanford University and Brian Elliott from the Future Forum appeared in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year. They confirmed that the first thing to realize is that culture can't be forged in the same way as it was when we were together in the office.

Examples they quote show that organisations have been very intentionally reinforcing different aspects of their culture during the work from home period, whether it be reinventing processes, creating agreements that support work life balance or changing the process of onboarding new hires. The important thing is realizing you have to take charge of culture and not simply let it be, as it probably was when we were all in the office.

The job for leaders is to not simply rely on physically role modeling to those observing their behavior in a physical space, but deciding on the cultural aspects that are important and sending appropriate signals consistently and without ambiguity.

I talked to Mel Parkes, Global Head of Workplace Transformation at energy giant bp, who has a lot of experience working with remote teams. I asked about his approach to tackling virtual culture.

00:08:14 Mel Parkes

I started new job in March and I didn't meet the majority of the team in the UK until this month and I have no idea when I'm going to meet my colleagues in AsiaPAC and Americas. But I use the values of the business as my guide in terms of engaging with my team.

In a practical sense, I think it's always been about, for me, if one’s engaging one’s team, particularly virtually, about kind of really demonstrating those values about having an open, transparent relationship, about trusting people to make the right decisions and accepting that sometimes that those decisions may not align with how you would have approached it and that they may make mistakes, but this is a coaching opportunity rather than opportunity to denigrate someone.

00:09:09 Karen Plum

As with many aspects of these new ways of working, I firmly believe that managers are the key, and it's clear to me that when many use the impact on culture as a reason to have everyone back in the office, I sense it's purely because it feels easier to simply return to a way that they believe worked in the past. But people tend to put on their rose tinted spectacles and look back to the way things were, with the romantic notion that everything was great.

But it really wasn't. As Andrew said earlier, I don't think culture did look after itself before, and it could probably have done with some sturdy maintenance then. So why would we be surprised that it needs focus now?

My experience has shown that people who were good managers before COVID have been good managers during COVID. They know how to manage and they have supported, developed and grown their people in different ways, when virtual working started last spring.

As with all aspects of management, culture has to be thought about more purposefully and deliberately. We can't assume that because we're together in the office, that that's a box ticked.

Here's Mel.

00:10:18 Mel Parkes

I'm sure we can all think of good examples of leaders that have walked into the office with their head tucked down until they've got into their office and shut the door and the only time really you see them look up is to check that everyone’s “working” and that they haven't left before 5:00 or 6:00 o'clock in the evening. Why is everybody gathered around the photocopier or the coffee machine?

Proactive managers can see regardless of whether its virtual or physical opportunities to engage with their people in a much more planned and proactive way, and will look for opportunities to coach in the same way, will ask to be invited along to observe their subordinates and see that as an opportunity to provide feedback in terms of their performance and to  work together to improve that.

00:11:12 Karen Plum

It's clear to me that managers and leaders need support to manage in different ways when they operate with virtual or hybrid teams, and many lack basic management skills, let alone an ability to pay attention to culture. Mel gave me a great example.

00:11:27 Mel Parkes

In legal teams, for example, where somebody is a really good paralegal, gets promoted through the business and ends up in a leadership role. Now, if they're of my generation, they probably didn't have a great deal of training in terms of how to lead a team, and some people are fortunate enough to have been coached through their career as I have, by good leaders and to pick up or observe traits that what we'd like to imitate.

Unfortunately other people have not been in that situation, have not had the coaching, have not had the training, and have not had a good experience that they could call upon.

00:12:19 Karen Plum

So what can we do to ensure our culture remains true to our intention as we continue to work virtually or in a hybrid model where only part of the time is spent in one place? Certainly we need to acknowledge that there is a great potential for people to have very different working experiences in the office as opposed to remote and that could exacerbate the issue of a fractured culture.

So identifying the issues and planning for them intentionally is key. Catherine makes an excellent point about how organisations communicate policies.

00:12:53 Catherine Lamson

I think we write our policies backwards. We write our policies so that we can discipline people and tell them what the rules are. And so we've written our policies to sort of protect ourselves, as opposed to writing a policy that is based on trust and collaboration. So I think we need to think about our policy writing and how we do that and what message does that policy send to new employees? 

I think it is telling about your organization and I want to be a really progressive organization. I want to transition out of that very traditional parochial setting and be more flexible; be more in tune to the needs of the workforce which is changing. Our industry is  made up of many senior people who've been in the industry for long periods of time. They learned it in their 20s and now they're in their 50s and 60s, and they’re still doing sort of the same things, slightly different. 

So we you know the next generation that's coming in wants to do really good work. They want to take care of the customer, but they want flexibility, they want technology, they want to be spoken with, not to or at.

00:14:15 Karen Plum

So how we treat people is an important indicator of culture. 

Some other simple examples from the Hinds and Elliot article are thinking about the way that information is shared – an asynchronous medium may work better than all-hands type events, but even then, the opportunity for in person activity also has its place where this is particularly going to strengthen culture.

Resisting the temptation to hold meeting events where some people are in a room together and others are dialing in is also important. If we level the playing field by having everyone dial in no matter where they are working at the time, this sends an important message about a culture of inclusion.

They concluded that from the executives they spoke to, most were seeking a balance of promoting a remote first culture with side-by-side work to strengthen the culture and being open to different approaches over time.

Here's how Mel described his approach.

00:15:11 Mel Parkes

My personal style is to be open and transparent and to coach people that work for me, but different approaches work for different people in different roles with different teams, so I wouldn't suggest that that's the panacea. But I think that that kind of approach, certainly one that reflects the values of the business, is one way of doing it.

00:15:32 Karen Plum

And we should be thinking about current and future managers, equipping them with the skills to get the most from their teams. Those joining organizations during periods of hybrid or virtual working will learn all of their skills differently, and arguably that's right too. We need to adapt ways of learning for the modern era.

To finish, I asked Mel if virtual culture is a big thing for him at the moment.

00:16:00 Mel Parkes

It’s a massive subject of discussion here and I've come from what was a UK and EMEA role into a global role and for me I think the biggest take from that is, you know, just the sheer diversity in a global organization and across the regions, countries and the different cultures, all with slightly different interpretations. 

Even you know if you can set your vision and your ambition and your values out and you might develop, as we have, a plan in terms of future hybrid working model but within the business I’m in, people take a very literal interpretation of the narrative, and so wherever I kind of whoever I speak to across the globe, you find that there are differences in interpretation that you then have to question, and in some cases challenge. 

But it's you know, it's great. That's what makes the job so interesting, and you know, where would we be without that kind of rich tapestry of the different cultures and different interpretations and it kind of constantly evolving and challenging of the norms. So that's one of the key things that brought me here really.

And I often reflect on differences between AsiaPAC, UK EMEA and the Americas. And, you know, in some cases they're quite significant in terms of the way - I mean, you can look at psychometric analysis in terms of individuals, but I think there are some quite entrenched behaviors, shall we say, across the regions that you know that we're looking to address. 

That's not to say that we want to make everyone the same and complete uniformity in interpretation of our hybrid working model or our culture - we don't - it needs to reflect the local nuances. But it's getting that balance between consistency and acknowledging the local culture.

00:18:05 Karen Plum

So clearly culture is complex. It doesn't just happen wherever we are, but it can be powerful if we actively set out to link it to our purpose and values and keep it under review so that it changes as our values and purpose change, which they inevitably will over time changing. 

Sustaining culture takes time, energy and effort. But if you want to embrace choice, flexibility, and different ways of working, then thinking deeply about how you can intentionally embed the things your organization really values into the way we do things around here is vital.

After the break, I'll be talking to my colleague in the Pacific Northwest about what's going on in her patch and how she advises clients on sustaining organizational culture, both physically and virtually. I'll be back after this message.

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00:19:51 Karen Plum

Welcome back. Now we're going to talk about what's happening in the Pacific Northwest and I'm delighted to welcome our Senior Associate Celeste Tell, who's based in Seattle. Hello Celeste.

00:20:02 Celeste Tell

Hello Karen, thank you so much for having me.

00:20:05 Karen Plum

You're very welcome. It's great to see you. Can you tell us how companies are handling the whole return to the office situation in your part of the States?

00:20:15 Celeste Tell

Well, for the most part, people are planning on going back in September along with kids going back to school, that's really been the plan and it varies - some companies are planning to all go back. Other companies are trying to figure out this hybrid thing, and they're going to see how things go. So I think the September timeline has gotten traction. 

And yet at the same time this summer everything opened up officially, locally and the CDC advised vaccinated people to stop wearing masks. And yesterday they kind of backtracked on that and said that people should be wearing masks indoors when they don't know if everyone in the room has been vaccinated. So I would say in the last 24 hours some things are maybe shifting and changing and we don't know the impact yet.

00:21:05 Karen Plum

Yeah, a really moving situation, isn't it?

In a previous podcast we were talking about people moving away from the big cities, either temporarily when there was a stay at home order or for some people permanently. What are you seeing - are people moving away from cities like Seattle?

00:21:24 Celeste Tell

Yes and no. It's been very interesting. There's an economist locally who does a podcast for local real estate, and what he describes it that it’s more of musical chairs, so people from larger cities like LA, New York, Chicago are moving to Seattle because it's a smaller city. People from Seattle are moving out.

The Pacific Northwest is one of the most geographically beautiful places in the world. And so yes, we've seen a lot of people moving out of Seattle out of Portland, within an hour or two of the city, so easy to access, but getting out into nature more and out into less dense areas and we've seen really quite a bit of that extending as far as into Idaho and Montana.

00:22:14 Karen Plum

Interesting, so they're still staying within a potential commuting distance?

00:22:20 Celeste Tell

Yeah, within two hours of a major city, but definitely not suburban - out in the woods or out in the country or on the coast.

00:22:30 Karen Plum

Right and there are these permanent relocations?

00:22:33 Celeste Tell

Hard to know yet - I think there's a mix. I think some people may migrate back in. I think there's too many variables and it's hard to know yet, but there's definitely been a lot of articles about how small towns are feeling overrun. They're calling them Zoom towns, where people who can work remotely and spend most of their interaction time virtually on Zoom or Teams can live anywhere, move out of the city.

00:23:04 Karen Plum

So are those towns seeing this as a positive thing, is it bringing more into their local economies or, I think you just said they're perhaps feeling a little overwhelmed?

00:23:15 Celeste Tell

I think it's a little bit of both. It's driving up real estate prices in a lot of these smaller towns and making it harder for service workers and people who may have historically lived in those towns to be able to afford housing.

I think it is also bringing money and economic development to those areas, so I think it's a mixed bag and it's hard to know yet how permanent or temporary these impacts really are going to be.

00:23:41 Karen Plum

It's a really tricky mix. We find this here in the UK. We've seen a lot of people moving from the big cities into the countryside, house prices going up, and then the local people can't afford the housing, which brings a lot of tension into those places.

00:23:57 Celeste Tell

So the people who are being displaced from some towns are now moving to other towns that might not have really been on the radar, and those towns are growing. So I think there's a whole sort of spectrum.

00:24:11 Karen Plum

And for the people moving to Seattle from places like LA or other big cities across the States, do you think it's access to the areas around the city so they get the benefits of being in a city, but also those beautiful areas are perhaps a bit closer?

00:24:28 Celeste Tell

I think there's that, and I think Seattle is just a smaller, more navigable city than some of those bigger cities. For people who have been in Seattle, the growth is feeling kind of overwhelming and too much. But for people from big cities, it doesn't feel that way. So it's all perspective and where you're coming from and what you're going to.

00:24:49 Karen Plum

Yeah, for sure. That's really interesting.

So earlier on in this podcast we were talking about creating and sustaining organizational culture, when lots of people are working virtually - so in those Zoom towns. How are you advising clients about this? Do you have any top tips that you're sharing?

00:25:20 Celeste Tell

I think the top thing that has come up has been intentionality and creating culture intentionally and with intentionality. I think that historically we've had the notion that culture is embedded in place as opposed to culture can be attached to place or maybe not attached to place and the thing that has come up over and over again is proximity and so we think of culture as being attached to proximity and we think of proximity as being physical proximity.

But we're now learning that we can also have proximity virtually right, because really, what is proximity? Sometimes you work in the same building or in the same office with somebody and you never see them. So is that really proximity? Whereas you might be able to have actually a much more in depth relationship with somebody you know, being able to use tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

One of the things we know is that corporate culture isn't monolithic. You know we talk about it as if it's that thing. It's not really a thing, it actually is many things. And so many, many organizations, specially large organizations, will have a macro culture and then micro cultures, and then there's always the explicit culture - the culture that we say we have, and there's also often implicit cultures that either people don't see or haven't been trained to see or take for granted.

And I think some of the implicit cultural aspects have been embedded in the way that we use physical space and now what we need to do is be able to look at all those cultural factors and intentionally translate them in - how do we want to be? How do we want to behave? How do we want to work together, whether we're in the same room or not.

And so that's really, I think, where the cultural conversation is going.

00:27:20 Karen Plum

The sense I'm getting from everybody that's been speaking on this episode is that it's all about trying to make what was assumed to be there and assumed to be the purveyor of culture, looking at that and being more overt about taking control of what you want from your organizational culture and how it actually expresses and underpins the values and beliefs that you have rather than just well, we all turn up in the office and the culture just happens.

00:27:52 Celeste Tell

If you think about it, historically, culture was this intangible. But then, over time, as we developed how we looked at the physical workspace, we intentionally chose to find ways to embed those intangibles into the physical environment. 

Now what we're saying is we need to really take those intangibles and decouple them again from the physical environment and understand what works in the physical environment and what really is intangible that can be translated into a virtual environment.

00:28:26 Karen Plum

That's a really great point to finish on. Celeste, thank you so much for coming onto the show and for sharing your thoughts with me today, I really appreciate it.

00:28:35 Celeste Tell

Thank you Karen, pleasure.

00:28:38 Karen Plum

And that's it for this episode. If you're enjoying the podcast, please recommend it to a friend or colleague. 

See you next time.

CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work Podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time. Goodbye.



Focus on Pacific Northwest