Maintaining an organizational culture in a digital environment
This past month, the Exchange Lab marked an exciting milestone — the opening of their new space at 808 Douglas Street. Be sure to read up about it via Ari’s blog post from our last newsletter if you’d like more specifics on the new space (link).
If you’re familiar with the Exchange Lab or visited it in its former existence at 1012 Douglas Street, you’ll be delighted to hear that many hallmarks of the Lab have been implemented in the new environment. It’s open, colourful, functional, and a space that I can’t wait to work in.
One of the things that I’ve always loved about the Lab is the supportive community that has emerged to foster innovation and creativity in the development of programs and services. And in its new space, the continuation of the culture created within the Lab will no doubt grow and develop — particularly as we move into a unique hybrid work environment with teams distributed across various on-site and remote locations.
I’ve really admired how the Lab has been able to maintain it’s organizational culture throughout the pandemic — even replicating the culture in the online environment. It’s left me thinking about how a leader can continue to establish an organizational culture in a hybrid work environment — particularly when all your staff aren’t in one location. Previously, it was really easy to get a sense of an organization’s ethos: the physical space (including the way the office is organized, what’s on the walls, the colours, layout etc.), the way staff engage and interact (in the lunchroom, during meetings, or other types of “watercooler” talk), and the processes (how efficient they are, whether staff feel supported in the work that they do, or if they’re empowered to make their own decisions).
So I’ve been thinking: how can a leader create an organizational culture that continues, and even grows, in a virtual or hybrid environment? Particularly if the organization is attempting to become more digitally adaptable or resilient?
To understand this, I to dove into what an organizational culture is, and it turns out, there are a lot of ways to examine organizational culture! One definition states it is “the way people think, which has a direct influence on the ways in which they behave”, while another suggests it is “a complex set of values, beliefs, assumptions, and symbols that define the way in which a firm conducts its business”. Organizational cultures can be strong or weak, depending on employees’ commitment and agreement with the “organizational values, norms, artifacts, and practices”. Most often, the more that staff agree with, share, and commit to a set of common values and practices, the stronger the culture will be.
It’s been suggested that employees increasingly want to belong to an organization, as opposed to working for a company. As such the value of a committed employee is paramount, and the organization must work to establish a link between the company and its employees.
What is the role of the leader in creating the organizational culture?
One of the theories that that I’ve really liked was developed from research by Saul Berman and Peter Korsten, which determined leaders can create more open and collaborative cultures through the establishment of three foundational building blocks. These are:
1. Creating a connected and open work environment that encourages engagement at any hierarchical level and units;
2. Gathering knowledge from the customer by focusing on user experience, and by taking a relationship-focused approach to creating a network with both partners and competitors; and
3. The need to be “boundaryless” as in flat or decentralized structures which emphasize an egalitarian, instead of hierarchical, approach.
If you’re familiar with more iterative or agile ways of working, then these may seem like no brainers. But when thinking about the ethos of an organization, it’s made me realize that it’s so much more than just the colours of the walls and the way the desks are organized. The culture is exhibited through the actions and behaviours of everyone in the organization — from the CEO through middle management to the most junior staff member.
So if the leader is able to create a connected and open work environment that encourages collaboration, takes a user-centered approach to product and service development, and is not defined by the levels in the hierarchy, they are much more likely to be able to create a culture that will thrive.
And interestingly enough, none of these suggestions are limited to a physical work environment — they can exist virtually and remotely as well. Through the inclusion of some great virtual tools (like Slack, MS Teams, Trello, Mural, etc.), the organization can become one that thrives in the hybrid environment — potentially even more so than their physically located counterparts.
What do you think? Do you have any tips or tricks for maintaining the organizational culture in a virtual environment? How do you ensure that your organization’s ethos continues with a hybrid workforce? I’m always down to hear how others are approaching this in their organizations
-Author: Amy Kirtay
 Martínez-Caro, Cegarra-Navarro, and Alfonso-Ruiz (2019), p.2.
 Martínez-Caro et al., (2019), p.2
 Gochhayat, Giri, and Suar (2017), p. 692.
 Gochhayat, Giri & Suar, (2017), p. 692.
 Bartlett and Ghoshal (1994)
 Berman and Korsten, (2014)