Will COVID-19 change corporate culture?


Will the COVID-19 pandemic have an impact on corporate cultures? If yes, how ? This is a deceptively difficult question. The quick answer is that he already has.

A brief headline read tells the surprisingly dark story: According to the Brookings Institution, more than 37 million Americans work in industries immediately affected by COVID. Almost any job that can be done remotely in any industry now is. The value of Zoom’s shares has more than tripled since the start of 2020. Our daily working life is characterized by constant uncertainty, unpredictability and anxiety. Our lives have been changed indelibly, perhaps forever.

But beneath these surface realities lies a more complicated answer. To achieve this, we must answer two questions. First of all, what is culture? And second, How is culture changed by events like pandemics?

The cultural “crisis”

Culture has been preoccupied with businesses for over 40 years, and it remains one of the most popular business topics today. Type in “corporate culture” on Amazon and you will get over 50,000 hits. Yet for all our concerns, we know terribly little or how to deal with it effectively. So figuring out how crops might be changed by COVID isn’t a straightforward endeavor.

The problem is, after 40 years of worrying, we’re still naive about what culture means – corporate values? Standards? Attitudes? How do we feel? How “do we do things here?” We greatly simplify the concept by reducing it to a single dependent variable, such as values, leadership behavior, or language. We believe that culture is something that can be managed, controlled and manipulated, just like machinery or real estate. And like many things in business, we want answers that are quick and easy.

We only have to analyze a few pre-pandemic statistics to understand how our lack of understanding had significant consequences:

  • A majority (51%) of the US workforce is not hired. Other studies have put this number as high as 68 percent.
  • Two-thirds of Canadian and American employees are actively seeking or would consider a new job opportunity if approached.
  • 46% of non-union workers say they would like to be in a union, up 32% since 1995.
  • A seemingly endless stream of culture-related corporate scandals including Kay Jewelers, Volkswagen, Boeing, Wells Fargo, Enron, GM and Equifax, to name a few.
  • 80% of the companies surveyed spend an average of $ 2,200 per employee per year on “culture management”. Extrapolated to Fortune 1000, that’s a staggering amount of money.

Bad science, simplified solutions

The problem is, most of our current approaches to culture are based on outdated or pseudo-scientific misconceptions, half-truths, or just wishful thinking. The zeal of MBA programs, consulting firms, and managers to provide simplistic, easily usable answers to difficult problems – and the fact that culture is the most complex phenomenon in organizational life – has taken us to where we are. are today. We are spending literally billions, with little result.

Ironically, the past 30 years of interdisciplinary work in cognitive science offer many new perspectives on culture, with the potential to transform the field. Unfortunately, much of this knowledge is not yet in the mainstream. Understanding this new science a little bit will give us a much more solid way to think about it.

The new science of culture

Cognitive science shows that culture is basic knowledgean operating system that we use to make sense and run successfully in any company or community. We call it a “referral system” because we draw on it continuously but unconsciously several times a day. Culture is a system of reference.

Think about what happens after thousands of hours of playing the piano, arguing legal cases, or solving difficult engineering problems. Just as individual neural pathways are shaped by repeated and habitual experience, so group neural pathways are shaped by the inherent neuroplasticity of the brain. Reference systems evolve from successful adaptive responses to environmental challenges over time, and the sustained and meaningful experience that a group has in successfully solving difficult problems.

The DNA of Culture

These experiences create shared mental representations – or dominant logics – used by the collective to explain, rationalize, justify and idealize. These logics are the DNA or source code of culture and underpin the repository. They present themselves as shared assumptions, lived norms and common norms for what is considered good (reference systems are also made up of organizational practices and adaptations, but the core is made up of dominant logics).

This means that to understand how a pandemic or any other massive ecological or societal change affects culture, we need to understand if that core is affected.

Culture follows the task

What you usually do over and over again shapes the way you think. Culture follows the task. This explains why cultures are so difficult to change. What makes you successful largely determines how you view the world collectively. Think of a central problem the organization solved in order to survive and thrive: being the “common man’s airline” in Southwest; development of the personal computer operating system at Microsoft; invent search at Google – and you’ll be close to understanding the prevailing logic of this business, or at least one of them. (Organizations have several dominant logics underlying their reference systems.)

The more the organization succeeds, the more the logic is hardened. Think how difficult it is for manufacturers to transform into digital and data science companies, or for a successful start-up to grow in such a way that the “magic” of its beginnings is retained and felt. .

To change culture, you have to follow these logics. It requires changing what you usually do and repeatedly. Big corporate visions, moving CEO speeches, compelling values ​​and all the other ways companies usually try to shape culture won’t. Interventions should be at the level of basic daily practices – the informal and formal daily routines, processes and habits (eg, planning, resource allocation, innovation, client) by which the organization manages its activities.

Is COVID Changing Your Cultural DNA?

So the real question is, is the pandemic changing your fundamental dominant logics? The jury is still out.

In some industries like airlines or hotels, the pandemic could change business models and practices forever. Think of the airlines that change the seating configuration or the structure of the routes, or the hotels that change the organization of the common space. These practices could change cultures if they fundamentally change the way these businesses operate. But it is not cheap.

The most likely scenario, and the one we are seeing unfolding now, is that the pandemic is in fact strengthen and strengthen dominant logics. As happens when we are under stress, our usual defenses – the dominant logics – will be triggered by an environmental stressor like COVID.

Think of the company that operates on the logic of mitigating risks and returns for shareholders through predictable quarterly profits. This company will use such logic to justify cutting expenses and firing workers, although other strategies such as time off or pay cuts may achieve the same goal. Or the environmental clean-up company with a dominant logic of ensuring the safety of the community which prohibits all travel to its employees until 2021 – a ban is the only way to guarantee safety. In these cases, the pandemic reinforces the logic already in place.

One thing is clear: managers must learn to adapt much more to a constantly changing environment. To the extent that adaptability changes business practices, this will have an impact on cultural logics. But beyond that, the question of whether COVID-19 affects the dominant logics at the heart of a company’s culture will depend on the duration and extent of the pandemic’s impact on society and businesses. .


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