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Bersin: How to avoid a ‘culture retreat’ after workplace returns

Health benefits for employees are the focus of 2023 HBLC
Josh Bersin
Josh Bersin writes HRE’s HR in the Flow of Work column. Bersin is an analyst, author, educator and thought leader focusing on the global talent market and the challenges and trends impacting business workforces around the world.

We’ve been collaborating with HR leaders in Big Reset working groups since May. In our latest sprint, the topic of “cultural retreat” has come up. As leaders start making return-to-workplace plans, they are finding that some of the cultural characteristics that helped their companies get through the pandemic are disappearing as employees return to offices and other physical workspaces.

I’m talking about characteristics such as agility, cross-functional collaboration, rapid response, streamlined decision-making and empathy. Over the past months, we’ve empowered managers and employees to move fast, invent and focus on important health, safety, training and wellbeing programs. But now, as more and more people are going back to offices, they are starting to go back to old ways of thinking and doing, such as waiting for specific assignments, spending more time in meetings and going through traditional reviews and decision processes. All of which just slow things down for everyone.

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Executives participating in our Big Reset groups unanimously agree cultural retreat is indeed a common reality. And it’s easy to understand. Once we go back to familiar physical spaces and the systems we used before the pandemic, we naturally go back to the behaviors we practiced then. And these behaviors–managers withholding information from teams, employees waiting for permission before inventing, people reticent to voice new ideas or strong opinions–are hard to break.

Transformation is one of the biggest positives that came out of the pandemic. Companies have been forced to transform their employee experience, their products and services, and the way they service customers, supply chain partners and staff. While the transformation has been disruptive, much of it has also been positive. Like a “shot in the arm” when you weren’t expecting it, companies went digital and became agile and leaders learned to be empathetic listeners almost overnight.

Related: This compassionate leader is HRE’s HR Executive of the Year
As your employees go back to the workplace, here are three things to consider to help you hold on to the positives of the last months and avoid culture retreat.

Leaders must accept new roles.

The role of leaders is one of the biggest changes that has occurred since the start of the pandemic. Out of necessity, leaders have learned to listen more, practice patience and humility, and trust people to do the right thing in very uncertain times. Traditionally, leaders were taught to know the answers and tell employees what to do, but those types of behaviors have been largely pushed aside in past months.

We in HR must help leaders understand that empowering and supporting employees is what actually creates leadership. We must institutionalize the changes made in past months and make sure leaders don’t go back to positional power as their default. This means celebrating and rewarding leaders who empower, challenging bureaucracy like never before, reinforcing that iterative solutions are more important than “perfect” ones, and helping senior leaders continue to push the practices of empathy and personal growth even as people come back to work.

Teams across the enterprise should reflect on lessons learned.

In past months, what did we do that worked? Where did we fail? Taking time to consider these and other related questions will pay off in the coming year. I recommend working with managers throughout your company to hold a series of reflective team meetings during which lessons learned are discussed. One company we work with recently went through this process and created a new manifesto that preserves its strong legacy and reinforces behavioral characteristics, such as invention, quality focus and teamwork that served the company well over past months. The process also identified what employees held as negative, such as risk aversion, lack of personal growth and an over-focus on profit. This information helped the company revise some of its practices after taking a fresh look.

HR professionals should become cultural anthropologists.

Now is the time to study your company’s culture, its workforce and HR’s relationship to both. Make sure you’re observing, reflecting and documenting what you find. As one of my coaches always tells me, “We should be curious about ourselves.”

See more from Josh Bersin HERE.

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An open-minded observation of your company and its parts will become hugely important in the year ahead. Yes, many of you are still in survival mode and may be going through restructuring. But even so, there is much to observe. Have certain people thrived and demonstrated new levels of creativity? Have certain teams or business functions become integrated like never before? Have managers handled performance management in different ways? Are people being rewarded differently? Using this information to inform and prioritize planning for the coming months will pay big dividends.

The pandemic is far from over, and the resulting business transformation continues at a record pace. I urge you to find and hold onto the silver linings that have appeared in this adversity. Use them to your company’s advantage and avoid going back to the “old ways” out of comfort or habit.

Meanwhile, stay safe out there.