The impact of leadership on culture

Tanya Hunter
November 18, 2020
Tanya Hunter

The importance of Culture

2020 has been a challenging time for organisations, and leadership has never been more important for shaping organisational culture. Workplace cultures have had to shift very quickly, as we have all needed to find new ways to interact and connect while working remotely. Workers who are still in the workplace have needed leadership that supports them to create and maintain a safe workplace wherever that may be, and to enforce new rules such as physical distancing and mask-wearing.

Leaders have also faced the challenge of keeping teams connected and engaged, particularly in the face of continuing uncertainty and extended periods away from the office. While workplace flexibility was previously discussed by many organisations, we found ourselves taking place in an unprecedented shift to remote working driven by COVID-19.

In the Australian HR Institute (AHRI) report on COVID-19’s impact on culture, four out of five HR practitioners stated that COVID -19 had forced their organisation to see, think, feel, plan and act differently, and that leadership played a key role in whether these changes would have an adverse impact on organisational culture.

Workplaces now more open to flexible and remote working

The report revealed that the majority of workplaces learned that remote working was more achievable than previously thought, and that most employees felt supported while working remotely. In addition, the actual experience of working remotely during COVID had made approximately ¾ of the respondents more open to flexible workplace arrangements. However, over 70% indicated that building culture remotely was a challenge.

Most workplace culture not adversely affected

Just over a third of the respondents indicated that working remotely had adversely affected workplace culture. HR practitioners surveyed reported the most adverse impacts of COVID-19 on culture related to the organisation’s morale and to employee wellbeing because of social isolation and job insecurity.

The report noted that organisational leaders with qualities related to “showing empathy, demonstrating care, energising the organisation, encouraging communication, letting-go-of ingrained thinking and having the courage to address shortcomings as a leader” would have the greatest impact on how COVID-19 affected the culture.

Remote working puts emphasis on culture

Paradoxically, as most of us are together less, culture has become more important as a tie that connects us to our workplace community, and leadership has become even more important in fostering culture, creating connection, and adapting to change.

Organisational morale and employee wellbeing have been affected by social isolation and concerns about job security, but many employees also feel a more genuine connection to colleagues and their organisation as working from home has led us to reveal more of our lives outside of work (sometimes inadvertently, as partners, children, roommates and/or pets meander through the home office!)

Leadership grows in importance

Technologies such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have allowed workplaces to remain connected, but have also caused some people to feel more disengaged, and there is the added issue of laggy internet connections and other technical frustrations.

As the AHRI report indicated, the same things – communication, technology, etc. — could both enable and be barriers to workplace culture while working remotely. Leaders who acknowledge the challenges, and maintain a sense of humour about them, help their workforce to adapt and change. The simple act of supporting employees to get the equipment such as additional keyboards, a larger screen or an ergonomic chair to create an optimal working environment at home reflects an organisation that values employee wellbeing no matter where employees are located.

Ultimately, the importance of good leadership in promoting and creating culture during COVID is much that same as creating culture before the crisis. Leaders who role model the values of their organisation and provide an environment for their team to grow and thrive have demonstrated that they can still do these things remotely.

We can have authentic connection while working remotely, even as many people long for a return to face-to-face interaction. COVID has given leaders an opportunity to consider what parts of the culture needs tweaking or what new structures might be created as we return to the workplace or continue to work remotely. We will have to wait and see how long-lasting the impact of COVID-19 on the culture of individual workplaces and the broader culture of work will be.

About Tanya Hunter

Tanya Hunter applies a sensitive approach to working with vulnerable clients and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and astute understanding of legislative and compliance frameworks and enterprise agreements. 

She brings a balanced, impartial approach to the entire process from preliminary analysis of complaints to conducting investigations, creating productive policy guidance and solutions and implementing change projects.

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