Paradise Lost

In the wake of the pandemic is your organisational culture an Eden destroyed or a Hell vanquished? For internal communicators tasked with helping organisations balance the needs of employees and the demands of leadership to establish a new workplace Eden, there may be some big challenges to come.

In the wake of the pandemic is the culture of your organisation an Eden destroyed or a Hell vanquished? Whatever has happened to your organisational culture over the last few months, it is unlikely to have survived the pandemic intact.

As an internal communicator I’ve often heard the words ‘we need to change the culture around here’ drop glibly from a senior stakeholder’s lips. It’s a phrase that has usually made me inwardly cringe or wryly smile to myself, because organisational culture isn’t something you can just flick a switch on and change in a week with a few basic internal communication interventions.

It usually takes years to establish an organisational culture and a similar time to move it into a different state, and whatever some senior leaders may think, it is not all about them making a few tweaks here and there.  However, in many organisations the pandemic has just fulfilled their wish. In only a few short weeks and months, the pandemic has smashed apart organisational cultures everywhere, or is in the process of influencing a significant cultural transformation as part of swift business adaptations to cope with the ‘next normal’.

A question of culture

A few weeks ago, I asked other internal communicators in a Twitter poll what the impact of Covid-19 had been on their organisational cultures. Well over 80% of people who responded said that the pandemic had changed their organisational culture forever or would influence it in some way.

Hardly a scientific study, but perhaps an indicator of just how widespread the impacts of the pandemic have been, and not just on the bottom line, for most organisations.  

Of course, a question like this is also open to interpretation and many of us have entirely different perceptions and understanding of what things define and influence an organisational culture. It’s another of those things in internal communication, similar to employee engagement, that has no clear or common definition. We are all speaking a different language when it comes to the definition of organisational culture, and it could be argued that each is unique.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion amongst internal communicators lately, about the importance and influence of leadership behaviours, style and communication on organisational culture. In particular, how enforced tactical adaptations to these have helped organisations successfully navigate through lockdowns, social distancing and mass remote working. We’ve all been sharing our ‘war stories’ about the challenges we’ve overcome and the benefits we’ve reaped from the democratising effect and sudden inclusivity and visibility of the virtual ‘all hands Town Hall’, and the ‘Ask me Anything’ style leadership events inside our organisations.

However, this isn’t the whole story and we shouldn’t be too self-congratulatory and think that it’s all over as far as shifting organisational culture goes to embrace the ‘next normal’. There are other significant elements, aside from leadership and communication, that have taken a sledgehammer blow from the pandemic. The consequences of which may have a more creeping impact on organisational culture as the ‘next normal’ takes hold. Our challenge will be to communicate and embed the business interventions used to address them.

The elements of organisational culture

Here are a few of the significant elements I think might influence and shape an organisational culture. Many of them are somewhat vaporous and intangible, but nevertheless important contributors to the cultural experience of all employees inside organisations.

Let’s consider symbols, for example, and how they manifest themselves inside organisations to shape the culture.

For centuries, the physical environment of workplaces has been designed (intentionally or unintentionally) with a hierarchy or pecking order in mind.  Single occupancy offices, open plan working, the leadership corridor, the shop floor and ‘the rules’ about how and when physical spaces in workplaces can and can’t be used are all symbols which define the degree of control, privilege and status of individuals within the organisational culture. Suddenly, for some remote working employees, these symbols have gone and maybe for good.

Similarly, consider dress codes and conventions. Yet more symbols of cultural controls, freedoms and status inside organisations. Again, suddenly gone or diluted. How many of us now have a range of Zoom or Teams ready outfits, some of which incorporate a pair of trakkie bottoms, shorts or pyjamas?

A cultural liberation? Perhaps, but for many organisations these new found freedoms for employees will be part of a very uncomfortable transition. Let’s not forget that much of workplace design, even in the 21st century, can be interpreted as a feature of the degree of ‘command and control’ that exists within the organisational culture.

A culture of surveillance

Some physical workplaces were designed so that managers were able to monitor and control the perceived or actual productivity of employees. The leaders of these places may be very unwilling to relinquish that ability to check up on employees in our new remote working world. As an indicator of this, since the pandemic began and remote working took hold, there has been a rising and worrying interest in Employee Surveillance Software.

What does that say about the changing culture of some organisations and how would you, as an internal communicator, sell that one to your colleagues if it was implemented in your workplace?

Maybe you already did, and have an interesting experience and story to share with the rest of us?

The serpent’s apple

It would be nice to think that the pandemic might universally disrupt workplace cultures for the better, but for some organisations and their leaders it will be a disruption too far and they will not be able to stomach the consequences of it.

Compensatory action will consequently be taken to re-establish certain cultural norms which were in existence before the pandemic began. In doing so, the temptations of the serpent’s apple may be difficult to resist for some which could have significant consequences for future organisational cultures, and those who work within them, in ways which we can’t yet conceive.  

For internal communicators, tasked with helping organisations strike an ethical balance between the needs of employees and the demands of leadership to establish a new workplace Eden, the bigger challenges may be yet to come.

The promise of a brighter future for organisational cultures everywhere, in the wake of the pandemic, could be a paradise lost or never found.   


Image by hrw1973 from Pixabay 

End note

The more biblical references in this blog were inspired by the epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ by John Milton. Written in 1667, it is a classic account of the struggle between the forces of good and evil, and the curse of knowledge. There is inspiration for internal communicators everywhere!  

Image by Chaos07 from Pixabay 

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