It's Time to Double Down on Culture

By Leah Fessler

In the face of uncertainty, there is a bright side staring you in the face: Those boxes on your Zoom calls. Your team.

Entering quarantine, many of us worried that our team connectedness would fall apart as we self-isolate. But for many teams, culture and connectedness are stronger than ever.

Consider an experiment conducted by Stanford economics professor Nick Bloom in 2015: A sample of call center workers accustomed to working in an office was divided into two, and half began working from home. Remote workers’ productivity jumped 13% (9% from more call minutes per shift, 4% from more calls per minute). Six months later, WFH employees were half as likely to quit. Following the experiment, the call center made WFH optional for all employees. Half the workforce switched, and gains doubled to 22%.

“No single factor influenced this productivity jump, but one of the most plausible explanations is that people are just grateful their employer trusts them to work from home,” explains organizational psychologist Adam Grant. “People had the autonomy to work when and where they wanted, and how they wanted. They could customize their lives a bit more, because no one was looking over their shoulder.”

Workplace culture improved for WFH employees because their work-lives and “real” lives merged, and both became more authentic. While this initially feels like a loss of control for leaders, the butterfly effect is tremendous: Research suggests that happy employees are up to 37% more productive.

How does this relate to the present? Of course, stress is high for leaders and employees alike. But to many leaders’ surprise, employees are connecting in deeper, more profound ways. Subsequently, they’re helping one another more, picking up slack, and getting more done.

At some companies, people are tearing up on video calls. Meetings are running over as colleagues “devolve” into conversation about cabin fever, existential woes, and how they can leverage one another’s projects. Chats are full of recognition and solidarity.

At Chief, employees without kids even created “Camp Chief,” babysitting their colleagues’ kids via virtual read-alongs, dance parties, and scavenger hunts. This support is beautiful, but it’s also beneficial to business: In these rare moments, colleagues with children receive a cherished opportunity to have a moment to themselves to devote to work, the dishes, or a mental health breather.

According to Nancy Rothbard, Chair of the Management Department at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, this culture shift is not so shocking. For the first time in a long time, we’re seeing our colleagues as full, dimensional humans.

“One fact we know about culture is that shared experience is incredibly bonding. We all have different values, experiences, and life situations, but we are all in this situation together,” says Rothbard. “Whether it’s loud background noise during video calls or loneliness driving us insane, these stories give us common ground.”

No one chose to be in this situation. We’re not speculating why some teammates want to work from home. This mutual understanding reduces judgment, and opens the door to authentic cultural connection.

“There is a tremendous amount of indisputable research on self-disclosure and closeness,” Rothbard explains. “When we disclose personal things about ourselves, people like us more, they’re more attracted to us, and they open up to us in return, so we form a bond.”

Self-disclosure has the same effect with friends and family as it does at work. This matters from a business perspective because people are much more willing to go the extra mile for people they like. “People are much more willing to give the benefit of the doubt when they see someone doing their best, and occasionally messing up,” says Rothbard. “In crisis, we need our team to go the extra mile and trust in our decisions for our businesses to survive.”

Importantly, we can reap the benefits of authenticity without being overly transparent or risking our credibility. This balance hinges on displaying some control, even if you’re struggling. When you admit to your shit, deal with it, then get back to your colleagues with genuine focus, you actually raise your profile and apparent capacity to manage competing priorities, says Rothbard.

These distracted moments define why connectedness is increasing through quarantine. We’re noticing that our seemingly perfect colleagues have problems, too. But if they can come back and refocus on work, we’re motivated to do the same. In fact, we work harder, inspired to build an infrastructure that bends to and encourages our imperfections.

This moment is an opportunity to define — and double down on — culture. We can do so by recognizing that connection comes from authenticity, and that employees are more successful when they’re liberated from pressure to (literally and figuratively) hide their laundry. Especially as we’re all remote, this liberation can exponentially benefit both your team satisfaction, and your bottom line.

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