Your Culture is Broken! How COVID-19 Changed Organizational Culture and How to Get Back on Track

With the sudden shift to work-from-home caused by COVID-19, your workplace culture has changed, whether you realize it or not. You simply can't do the things the same way you did before and expect to get the results you're used to.

In this 30-minute conversation, Jamie Notter, Co-Founder and Culture Designer at Human Workplaces and Michael Hoffman, CEO of Gather Voices, will discuss how ongoing culture management will help your team succeed during the pandemic and beyond.

They discussed:

  • How COVID-10 accelerated workplace culture innovation
  • How to find new ways of working that take into account the world we're living in right now
  • Using ongoing culture management to drive results
  • Using video communication to bring back passive transparency and create inclusive hybrid work experiences

Watch the Complete Conversation

Read the Complete Transcript

Michael Hoffman: 

Welcome to the next conversation in our conversation series, 'Your Culture is Broken! How COVID-19 Changed Organizational Culture and How to Get Back on Track.' I am very excited to be speaking with Jamie Notter because Jamie is such an expert in this topic and in our conversations we've had, there’s just some really interesting things that I think will be actionable for you. So I'm Michael Hoffman CEO at Gather Voices, and Gather Voices is a software company that makes it easy to collect, manage, share video from anyone anywhere in the world. We work with a lot of nonprofit organizations, a lot of associations, and businesses to help them collect video that they can use for member engagement, continuing education, advocacy, and culture building. And so Jamie's here and couldn't be more of an expert in this space. You've written a couple books, this is your life's work here, and you're really deep in it. So, Jamie, can you just introduce yourself a little bit more and maybe tell us about one of your books as well?

Jamie Notter:

Sure, well, thanks for having me. I'm excited to be a part of this conversation. I run a consulting company called Human Workplaces along with my partner Maddie Grant, and she's also the coauthor of all three of those books that are up there, and she and I have been, although we came from different angles, I originally was in the conflict resolution field, and she was originally in digital media, I mean digital strategy, social media, but we've been doing culture work for a couple of decades now, and it just finally, we can call it that, because you couldn't call it that at the beginning. And I think if you wanna start with any of our books to really focus on the culture angle, I would go with, 'When Millennials Take Over'. Because although it's got a millennial angle to it, that book is actually about the future of work. And it's actually about a really big transition we're experiencing right now, and culture is at the heart of it.

Michael Hoffman:

That's terrific! If you were to describe that transition in a couple of words, what's the core of that?

Jamie Notter:

The transition away from traditional management. So command and control, don't share information unless you have to, change is hard, towards what we call future of work, which the organization is you read about in the management press now, like they're agile, they're innovative, they're transparent, they focused on inclusion, those kinds of things. So we're moving in that direction. And right now we're in that sort of messy middle, still of a lot of traditional stuff going on, but we're trying the futurist stuff.

Michael Hoffman:

So jumping into our conversation, I'd like to kick it off really with a question that we got in before today. So this is one of the things we do here at Gather Voices, Gather Voices is software where you can collect videos, and so we ask folks if they have questions that they want to share in advance, and we're able to incorporate those videos here. So, let's listen to Carol.

Carolyn Thompson:

I am Carolyn Thompson from Training Systems, where I customize training and human resource consulting company. And like most of you, so many of people are going back to their offices, maybe only half the team is going back, maybe less than that, some of the people are planning to ever go back. So people are asking us, how do you manage remote workers? How do you manage remote team members? And even more importantly, at least for the next many, many months, how do you manage a team or, or a whole organization that is part at home and part in the office? Love to hear your ideas on that together with other things we've heard. 

Michael Hoffman:

You know, it's interesting because I've always thought if you're all remote, it's sort of one thing. And if you're all in person, it's another thing. And we're seeing that with events too, people are talking about hybrid events, but what does hybrid event, it's really two events. There's an event online there's then the person, and those aren't the same thing. So how have you been thinking about this given that how uneven it's going to be be in terms of people going back?

Jamie Notter:

Well, I mean, one of the things that I've said in response to that sort of conversation, which has been happening for a while now. And she said, how do you manage people, I love the word supervision, which literally means to oversee, right? And we can't see people anymore. I can't see them in the same way. And I really think it is a time to rethink a lot of our management practices, like how did you manage them before? Did you just give them some results, they had to get and let them do it? Or were you like in their face all the time? Because you can't be in their face all the time. So like I think we have to get much better about like, what are the quantifiable results we need and when do we need them, you know? And start defining those things as opposed to check in with me every week when you're walking by my office and we'll talk about what you're doing, and you know what I mean? So I think there's some stuff that we probably should have been doing before in my opinion, around management that's either all remote or hybrid remote environment’s going to make us do. And then the other side of that is particularly in the hybrid one, and I think a lot of us have been doing this you know, in this COVID era, but we have to really learn how to do the relationship stuff virtually. We have to be human together on the screen. Early on a couple of my clients said the same thing, they said, all of our communications become transactional. You know, the only reason I meet with you is 'cause we need to do something specific and then we're done, and part of that was just 'cause everything's all crazy, and we were trying to get everything done really quickly. But one of the things that we started to lose was how do you have that informal casual kind of human connection? And it's doable online, but it takes, you know, a little effort and some changing of some habits probably.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah that reminds me of one of our clients that are using Gather Voices, they've actually asked people questions. Like, you know, what's one thing you learned about yourself during quarantine times, and things like that to probe a little bit about who they are, and then letting them share that, you know, in video that they then can share out. And there's something about that asynchronous thing, you know, where people can record when they're ready, that's different than the Zoom thing, which is like, we're all gonna be on this thing, and it seems like there's more meetings, there's more time, there's more visible things and it's exhausting. Can we do some of this in an asynchronous way? I mean, you talked about the supervision thing. If you just try to impose that traditional supervision, then you're going to be meetings all the time, which is one complaint that I've been hearing.

Jamie Notter:

Yeah, no, we have a client that struggled specifically because they had built a culture that was very inclusive in their decision making. Like if there was a big decision, you often got a lot of people in the room, to get a lot of voices in the room, that's just how they did it. But they did it because they were in person, you could walk by someone's desk and say, "Hey, there's a big meeting, I want your voice in the room." Can you you jump over here? And usually they like could, now they're in another Zoom meeting, you know what I mean? Because you literally can't get the same number of voices in the room, so this organization actually had to make some decisions about, are we gonna... not abandon, but are we gonna shift our culture a little to say, look in this environment, we literally can't involve the same number of people, but that's where the asynchronous piece could come in. How do you get input from people without them being in the room, you know? And they had to explore that before, when they were all in person. And so now they're trying to figure it out, right?

Michael Hoffman:

So one question I have, you know, culture feels like very amorphous. Like, you know, we talked a little bit about like finance versus culture and how... You know, but in finance, you can look at a spreadsheet and you can see what you got, what's the equivalent in culture? Like when you think about culture, how do you, or you work with clients, how do you measure the culture? How do you say this is your culture? Like, what is that made up of?

Jamie Notter:

So my definition of culture is the words, actions, thoughts, and stuff that clarify and reinforce what's valued, okay? So the essence of culture is what do we value here, and not core values, don't get me on that tangent, I can go for an hour on that one done, and it doesn't, it's not pretty. But it's about what's valued, 'cause what's valued is what drives our behavior. If I know that you really value that inclusive decision making and you're my boss, like next time I need to make a decision, I'm gonna bring some other people in, 'cause I know it's valued, right? It drives my behavior, so when I'm having conversations with people who don't really know what their culture is, the first conversation I have or like, well then what are the patterns you see around, what's valued? Like what comes up more often? What doesn't come up? And how do those things relate? And it's, I mean, I asked around the standard stuff that comes from our books, but information sharing, how do you work? How do you collaborate together? How do you do innovation? Like these are common management concepts. What I'm looking for is what are the patterns around that? Not, we love innovation, but how do you do innovation, you know, or we love collaboration. I'm like, okay, but how territorial are you? You know what I mean? So these are questions that you can get in a variety of ways, but it's all about, you know, we kind of value this stuff, but this stuff not as much. And when you start to see that, you're describing your culture.

Michael Hoffman:

And so it's really about the things that you do, that show that certain things are valued, right? And I think a lot of people's minds immediately go to compensation as the thing that signals value. And, you know, in your review does it include that you were information sharing or things like that? But it's not just about compensation, or maybe it's not much about compensation, how does that fit?

Jamie Notter: 

Well, I mean, I think compensation matters. People will pay attention to what gets attention in their reviews and they will behave to that. You know what I mean? Which is why like all those really toxic cultures like Wells Fargo bank and all that kind of stuff. They had lovely sounding cultures in their materials, but when you get rewarded on the number of accounts that created, then you'll create fake accounts. You know what I mean? Like, so you gotta watch the compensation piece, it can be dangerous actually. But most of it is by watching the behaviors of people above you in the hierarchy, you watch what they do. You watch where they put their attention, right? You tell we have a culture of empowerment, we hire smart people, we let them run with stuff. I'm like, that's great, and then I'm walking down the hall and my boss is like, "Hey, Jamie, that project we talked about last week, like, what's the status?" I'm like, "It's done, I sent it, it's live on the website." If my boss says, "Ooh, did someone get to look at that first?" That's not a culture of empowerment. That's a culture of make sure people look at your stuff before you finish it, which is fine, both are fine cultures, but it's those behaviors that tell me what the culture really is, not sort of the...

Michael Hoffman:

How do you legislate those behaviors, right? Like if you have an intention to be a certain kind of culture, how do you get that, you know, to every person? So that in the moment they'll react, the way that that reinforces the culture you wanna have?

Jamie Notter: 

Well, I think a key step is making it clear to everybody, exactly why you value what you value. Like the why is too often left out, like we come up with core values, and we come up with a culture statement that says, this is what we want our culture to be, period. What I wanna do is be able to have the whole story for people to say, look, here's what our culture actually is. These are our real patterns, these happen every day, you know, they do, you see it right? But here's what makes us really successful. And this pattern is getting in the way of that. So we need to shift our culture to these kinds of behaviors, because if we do, we'll be more successful. If people see, can connect those dots, they will change their behavior. Because if it's gonna make them more successful, they're gonna do it, if it's gonna... if it's better, even better, like if it's gonna take away that thing that was frustrating you so much, and not getting into success, then they'll do it. And then on the back end of that, that's where I would focus your performance reviews, is on culture behaviors, you know? Like, are you actually in behaving in ways that we said is gonna drive our success.

Michael Hoffman:

Right.

Jamie Notter:

And so making that connection, I find people like, Oh, culture change it's so hard, and change management is hard, not if it makes people successful, they will do it right away. So that's the part that you got to zero in on.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, that's really interesting. So it takes this whole culture discussion out of the theoretical and the kind of woo woo thing and says, what are you actually doing? And then what are the some levers you can pull to reinforce the things that are working and maybe not do the things that aren't. So if you built a culture that was really successful and now COVID happened, how do you try to get back to that? Do you have to analyze like what part of that is broken and then say, well, what's the analog in COVID times.

Jamie Notter:

Yeah, the advice that I'm giving clients now, 'cause I've seen this happen in a couple of cases, particularly at the management team level, but someone in the organization has to be looking for areas of friction, like we created a culture that worked for us, you know, seven months ago, right? 29 years ago, I think it feels like. But anyway, whenever this thing started. And now life is different obviously, and we're adjusting actually pretty well in my opinion, was that the whole move to remote was done really well, I thought in general, but now though, it's different where are the areas of friction, where's stuff that was working before, that's not working as well. Where are the areas like where we thought we would be here, but we're here, and not just because it's COVID and people aren't buying stuff, but I mean, in terms of productivity or tasks that need to be accomplished, we thought we'd be able to be at this place, but we're not. Like, what are those areas? And can you connect it back to the way we run our culture? 'Cause there may be pieces of the previous culture that you have to shift. Like the example I gave around inclusive decision making, we're gonna have fewer people in the room. So we gotta do something differently. And there are, I think for most organizations, you're gonna find a bunch of areas where, what worked for us before, needs to be at least temporarily adjusted to deal with this reality, you may be able to go back in a year or, you know, whatever, or maybe you find this new way works so well, we're gonna keep it. But the world is constantly changing therefore your culture must also be constantly changing if it wasn't COVID it would be something else. So the idea that you're constantly evolving your culture is actually something we need to get used to.

Michael Hoffman:

So, you know, before you were saying how these management changes that you believe are overdue, that some of those things are happening. And at the same time you said, you know, in an example of this, this one is fine and that one's fine. Just don't pretend that you have a different culture than you actually have, but aren't things that are just clearly better in culture, you know? I mean, you've seen a lot of organizations, you've seen a lot of patterns, if somebody comes to you, they said I'm building something new, or I'm in an association or I'm in a nonprofit, and I'm taking over and we need to change the culture here. What are the things that they should be thinking about? Or what are the things that, you know, work really well?

Jamie Notter:

Well, I mean, I will admit I'm sort of not of two minds, but I speak out of both sides of my mouth. There's some sort of metaphor here, but because it's a bit of a both hand, 'cause I know for a fact that there's not a universal, perfect culture, like, you know what I mean? Like you have to tie your culture to your success factors. So some organizations can be more hierarchical, can be more siloed and that's fine, organizations with where people's lives are on the line, oil and gas pipeline, that kind of thing. Like there's not a lot of loose experimentation in those kinds of....

Michael Hoffman:

Like an airline or...

Jamie Notter:

Right, like, so there's some things where I don't want innovation there. No hacking things, you know? So understanding that the other side of it is, I see really consistently the cultures that are more futurist have higher employee engagement, and I think are doing better, okay?

Michael Hoffman:

What do you mean by a futurist?

Jamie Notter:

I'm meaning more fully embracing innovation. Like not just the concepts innovation, but the practices, more broad transparency, not just reactive, like if I ask you for information, will you share it, but proactively creating systems to let information get to the right people at the right time. The ones that are moving towards again, transparency, inclusion, collaboration in a way that is embracing all of it. I mean, I think that's where we're headed. Now, if I had to say, where would I start then? I would point, and this comes a little bit from our data analysis of the aggregate data. I would focus on how are you designing the organization around the needs of employees? Okay, we have never done that in the management world, we have designed it around customers sometimes, but mostly around the needs of management, right? That's how we organize, that's how we design. It is not the norm in traditional management to say, wait a minute, let's take all these different employees we have and make it work for all of them.

Michael Hoffman:

Interesting.

Jamie Notter: 

Like that's hard to do, but that piece that sort of focus on needs and focus on customization is the piece of the futurist story, that I think is gonna have the biggest impact, that those pieces of our data do have a stronger correlation with the would you recommend someone to work here, question? So again, it's not a correlation it's not caused, but that's where I would sort of look first, 'cause that's the hardest stuff.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, that's interesting, and it also makes me think about what you said before around the change, because people are remote and that the supervision that you can't have and that you need to start letting people get results, you know, in a way that they're not under the microscope all the time, because that doesn't work. That also seems like that could lead to flexibility in work that we haven't had, right? That could make it possible for parents, you know, to be flexible and you know, things that just weren't done in the normal course of business 30 years ago, are things that are opened up today.

Jamie Notter:

Well, I mean, there were several a couple on it, there were a couple of large, large, large organizations that I talked to right after COVID hit, and I'm talking to sort of mid level HR people, but they're like, yeah, we've basically been telling our employees for the last 10 years that it's impossible to work remote, in our environment that it can't be. And then two days later we're all doing it, and we're okay. You know what I mean? So the idea that there's all these things that we could have been doing, but weren't like, that was sort of the big wake up call. But I think the idea that we need to treat everybody the same is actually a mistake, 'cause I don't think we should treat everyone the same. That's not what really equity and being fair is all about. And so now we actually have some, I think some cool opportunities to say, yeah, we've got parents who are homeschooling unwillingly.

Michael Hoffman

Right.

Jamie Notter:

Right? And so there are a lot of organizations say, "Look, some of our employees, you are not gonna be able to get through to them much until after four o'clock when their kid's school day ends, and that's fine. And again, like a year ago, if I had suggested that people would have run me out of town, you know, like we can't have people not working, that's not fair, what about the people that don't have children? You know, like, but to me, I look at it like, well, if they were working in a different time zone, like we would make adjustments, you know? So like there's a lot of stuff that we assume that we can't do it, and in fact we can, and that flexibility, goes back to the piece that I mentioned designing around the needs of employees and the sooner we figure out, I think how to do that, the better.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, that's great, and we really share that vision here at Gather Voices, I mean, our vision is, you know, to enable the voices who haven't been in the conversations to be included, and part of that is this is asynchronous video instead of having to be on a meeting. And because people get excluded from those, for the exact reason that you said, so designing systems where you can be hearing from people getting feedback, you know, people being able to be included and being included with your face in your voice, has a different impact than you know, writing some notes in the margins kind of thing.

Jamie Notter:

Yeah, yeah. No, I think it's hugely important and I would say. I mean, the fact that the whole COVID thing is super imposed on the black lives matter, stuff that's going on. Like there are some really, really important conversations that need to happen inside organizations to deal with this stuff. And they're hard enough as it is, but it's a lot harder if it's just a comment thread, you know what I mean? So these important issues need human connection. And if we're too slow on that, we're gonna miss some real big opportunities I think.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, I totally agree, I mean I think that this, the diversity and inclusion conversation that's happening is another push in that direction around culture that needs to happen, and you know, we're interested at Gather Voices here on our clients. So how can we help facilitate that? How can we, you know, and part of that is about representation, you know, who is heard from, and how do you change that so that it has impact. Yeah, it's a very interesting moment that we're in here today. So I want to, I'm just gonna share my screen again, I just wanna share with everyone, something that we've been working on, that relates to this culture conversation, which we have a partnership with Higher Logic to add video to the Higher Logic communities. If you're not familiar with those Higher Logic runs a lot of private communities that associations and others use, where there's a lot of conversations going on. And often these are the most vibrant conversations happening in the organization. And now that people can't get together, that the media events and the meetings are canceled, one of the things we've done is adding video to those conversations. So being able to include video in those threaded conversations, having real impact on a feeling of community. And I think especially in the nonprofit world and the association world, community is the goal, community is part of the mission, right? Community is what you're doing. And this is one way that we're doing them. So Jamie, thank you so much. I think I could easily talk to for another hour and we only have two minutes, so this is a big topic, I think that, you know, takeaways for me, a big one is that you can't just think culture's gonna work itself out, you've gotta be deliberate and say, what are the things that are working for us, and what aren't, and then what are the actions we're taking what are the implicit things that people are doing, that's reinforcing that thing we don't wanna do. Because he can't just like make a rule or say, you know, we're innovators now or something like that and change it.

Jamie Notter:

Yeah, I mean the one thing that I would reinforce sort of to close on that is seeing your culture patterns is the first step, and it's what most people don't do. We define culture in terms of the stuff that we want, we wanna be innovative, we wanna be collaborative, we wanna be transparent, whatever it is, which is great. So tell me, what part of that is actually happening, and what part of it isn't? 'Cause in almost every one of those things that you want, there's the stuff that happens and the stuff that isn't valued as much, and knowing which is in which position is so huge. But nobody wants to talk about this stuff that we're not valuing as much, you know? We value collaborative individuals, we like to help each other. Groups, not really important. Your team, you get to do your stuff. You don't have to collaborate with other people. That's a waste of time, like they don't admit that that's part of the culture, or at least towards that direction. Each one of those areas, each area of your culture that you really love has that not loved side. And until you see those patterns, you're not gonna know how it connects with success. So that's been, my mission is to get people to start talking about the patterns and the things that aren't valued in their culture as much as the other part, as the prerequisite for what's gonna drive our success.

Micheal Hoffman:

That is so interesting, thank you, Jamie. Thank you for joining us, thank you for taking the time out to have this conversation with me. If folks are interested in working with you, contacting you, there's your email and website, and same with me, feel free to reach out and continue the conversation. So again, Jamie, thank you so much and everyone thank you for coming. And we look forward to seeing you at our next conversation in our conversation series.

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