COVID Cultures Thick and Thin (Part I) – COVID-19’s Challenge to Our Organizational Cultures

How do you know you are part of something?

Our organizational cultures tell us how we are part of our organizations. As COVID-19 changes the way we work, it challenges those cultures. Our cultures are shifting with every video call and Slack interaction.

Organizational culture is the glue that holds us together. We live in our organizational culture through layered agreements, conscious and unconscious. These agreements are about how we work together, how we make decisions, how we communicate, what we value, and what are acceptable and unacceptable ways to behave. Our culture helps us navigate the outside world coherently. Looking at COVID-19 culture change through the lens of Thick and Thin Cultures can help us learn what we can do to navigate better.

Thick Culture: In a Thick Culture, we are immersed in a vibrant history of relationships and interactions. We walk well-established pathways for conflict, feedback, trespass, awards and promotions. We participate in important formal and informal rituals. We can talk about things like purpose and values, but these are often unspoken, built into every interaction. We might even dress in similar ways.

Government organizations with Thick Cultures include agencies with strong missions, sustained core functions and proud track records.

Thin Culture: In Thin Cultures, our connections with others are loose, ad hoc and transactional. We do not have a history or base of interactions to lean on, so we make them up. This allows us to be more flexible and willing to invest easily in new ideas, technologies and practices. Our work may be episodic and tenuous. Values and agreement on purpose and direction vary widely and we may hold differing goals outside a specific project. Congruence with a consistent purpose and direction is just not that important.

Organizations with Thin Cultures include cross-sector initiatives and new functions due to changes in funding or policy direction.

As we work at home and our workplaces become calculated risks, COVID-19 challenges both Thick and Thin Cultures.

Thick Culture Challenges: COVID-19 risks include burnout and declining innovation. While those working from home can lean on the depth of their relationships and the trust they’ve built, they can also feel exhausted. They likely have been trying for months to replicate what they had previously, and it is not working. They are less innovative without colleagues around them. In Home Sweet Office, Clive Thompson relates, “a company’s culture and creativity risk declining in a remote setup, because that alters the way an organization talks to itself. When the pandemic hit … strong ties were becoming stronger … But the weak ties had deteriorated … it’s those weak ties that create new ideas.”

What do you do if you are in a Thick Culture?

First, you likely have a history of successful change and innovation. Telling stories about successful changes the organization has weathered will set the stage to reach out beyond your “strong ties,” the people you know well, to the more distant connections. Second, managers must insist that staff unplug and take deserved time away from the constant connection the organization favors right now. Finally, the trust with coworkers remains. Build on that through private chats messaging and the occasional old technology – the telephone call.

Thin Culture Challenges: COVID-19 challenges include alienation and unnecessary conflict. At first, people may feel energized. They are more connected because everyone has joined them in their transactional environment. However, these attitudes can soon succumb to isolation because their loose connections become even more tenuous. The ways they communicated before have narrowed, leading to misunderstandings and disagreements as messages are misinterpreted. In “The ‘Future of Work’ Is Here, Thanks to COVID-19,” Jason Wingard advises, “What’s key now is avoiding a culture wherein every interaction, albeit casual, becomes transactional. Without water coolers and office banter, employees may feel as though they only hear from colleagues when something is needed.”

What to do if you are in a Thin Culture? Encourage participation in virtual happy hours and other events to create understanding and connections. Work to create as rich a communications environment as possible, using multiple technologies to connect people and clarify misunderstandings quickly.

Whether your culture is thick, thin or somewhere in between, test out some of these ideas as well as your own and see how they work. Respect the learning curve.

Above all, recognize that our organizational cultures are struggling, coping and thriving in reaction to COVID-19. And you can do something about it.

Come back next week for Part II — COVID Cultures: Swift and Slow

Peter Bonner is an organizational development and performance innovator with expertise in federal agency assessments, leadership development and interagency/multi-sector initiatives. Peter has worked with more than 30 different federal entities and 10 interagency or multi-sector partnerships. For example, he managed and facilitated the process for the interagency team at VA, DoD, OPM, and other agencies to improve Veterans’ hiring. Peter has worked on Presidential Rank Award evaluation teams, assessing the accomplishments of Senior Executive Service members to be awarded this rare honor. He also served on the White House initiative on multi-sector leadership, an effort to use human-centered design techniques to develop leaders of the future. Finally, Peter helped design and has been a lead instructor on the Digital IT Acquisition Professional training program. You can connect with him on Twitter @PeterCBonner.

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