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Coronavirus Is Testing Corporate Cultures. That Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Thing.

April 23, 2020 • Scott McMurray

How is your corporate culture holding up in the brave new world of remote work?

“Can you hear me?”

“Could the rest of you please mute your mic when you’re not speaking?”

“Click on the icon in the lower left-hand corner of your Zoom screen.”

“No, the one that looks like a microphone.”

The coronavirus pandemic is stress-testing workers and employers around the world in ways that most of us could not have imagined even a few months ago. Those who are still employed are adjusting to a working world spent at home—alone or with kids and spouses—with little if any in-person contact with coworkers or customers. Talk of businesses reopening in different parts of the country suggests there is light at the end of the tunnel. But the tunnel still seems awfully long to most of us.

Corporate culture is often described as “the way we do things” and “the way we treat people and each other.” It’s what keeps us together and connects our past with our present. Is your corporate culture coming unglued in the current environment? Has the upending of standard practices revealed contradictions or gaps in your organizational culture that go beyond the details of working remotely?

Reviewing and reinforcing your corporate culture can go a long way toward reducing stress during the pandemic. It may also provide insights into aspects of your culture you may not have focused on in the past, or even serve as the basis for an even stronger corporate culture going forward.

Codify your culture

First things first. Can you define your culture? Most formal culture-defining exercises rely on interviews with a cross section of employees. The trouble is, perceptions of your organization are being shaped weekly, if not daily, by the current crisis.

A focus on customers is at or near the top of most cultural credos, and with good reason. Without satisfied customers, we’d all be out of business. Another cultural touchstone: Our employees are our most valuable asset. Again, for all the right reasons.

What rings true, and what seems slightly out of touch or too aspirational? Is there is a disconnect between what you preach and what you practice under duress? Why do you think that is, and how might you resolve that disconnect?

None of us working today experienced the global pandemic of 1918-1919, popularly known as the Spanish flu. But we can recall how more recent crises strained workplace cultures, even if working remotely wasn’t a defining characteristic. Here are a few examples of crisis response highlighting the strengths of corporate cultures.

Our people, our culture

Crises don’t simply bring out the best in robust corporate cultures: They may actually help forge them. Verizon Communications was formed in July 2000 with the merger of telecommunication leaders Bell Atlantic and GTE. The two distinct corporate cultures overlapped when it came to customer service. For months after the merger, teams from each predecessor company hashed out how to articulate the other pillars of their shared values. They ended up with integrity, respect, imagination and passion.

In the midst of the integration, a crisis disrupted Verizon’s plans and played a significant role in forging a true common culture.

The September 11 terrorist attacks upended life as we knew it, particularly in Lower Manhattan. Verizon supplied mobile, landline and data communications to much of Lower Manhattan, including the New York Stock Exchange. The Bush administration and Wall Street leaders were committed to reopening the exchange as soon as possible after the attacks as a signal to the world that the United States remained unbowed. They turned to Verizon to make it happen.

Thousands of Verizon employees worked 24/7 to rebuild the grid and get the Exchange up and running. Verizon built a telecommunications system the size of a small city in a matter of days, with huge cables snaking down city streets atop protective sidewalk scaffolding. On Monday, September 17, 2001, anxious engineers watched as the opening bell rang. Wall Street was back in business.

Verizon’s corporate culture might have initially been slow in coming together, but the crisis forged a common cause. In their 2001 letter to shareholders, Co-CEOs Ivan Seidenberg and Charles Lee stated: “In July, we celebrated our first year as a new company. On September 11, we came of age.”

That crisis shaped Verizon’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its all-hands-on-deck response to serving clients is a testament to employees’ ability to rally around a common cause.

Tapping your inner innovator

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 is rarely thought of as a crucible of innovative corporate cultural behavior. However, teams that were able and willing to tap innovative aspects of their team cultures thrived in the wake of that meltdown, and their customers benefited, as well.

Researchers Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi coached several corporate teams working with customers in the mortgage and home equity loan markets during the 2008-2009 crisis. They observed that the typical financial services firm was “doubling down on rules and processes” as a means of managing through the crisis. All the i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed.

Others took a more experimental path. They focused on the problems they could solve and developed innovative solutions. Then, they pushed through the adoption of the solutions to the benefit of their companies and their customers. They weren’t constrained by overly strict cultures.

It was a win-win solution, born at a time when many feared a lose-lose financial calamity. And it paid off. These teams outperformed their peers by 200 percent, and their motivational scores went through the roof.

McGregor and Doshi see clear parallels with our current crisis in industries including pharmaceuticals, supply chain management and insurance. “Give people the opportunity to experiment and solve problems that really matter,” they state. “Ask them: Where can we deliver amazing service to our customers? What’s broken that our team can fix? What will drive growth even in a time of fear? Why are these problems critical, valuable and interesting?”

No one wishes for a crisis. However, the current pandemic will be with us for months, at least, so don’t ignore the cultural challenge it presents. It provides you with the opportunity to stress-test your corporate culture. Lessons learned during this time may position you for better times ahead and make your organization even more productive and resilient.

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