When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March, I thought we would be working from home for a couple of weeks to help flatten the curve. As Executive Director of the Commission on Professionalism, I didn’t make any long-term plans for my staff to work remotely for months on end. Nor did I consider how I would maintain our corporate culture while my team was working across the state and beyond. Then, reality sank in: we are in this for the long haul.
Employees across industries are learning new skills and applying innovative tools to help them adjust to working remotely. CLE programs are examining technical and ethical considerations, but equally as important is considering how to maintain corporate culture when the pandemic has scattered your team far beyond the office walls.
Leaders set the corporate culture
We have learned that the delivery of effective legal services isn’t dependent on being in an office. Similarly, organizational culture isn’t reliant on each member of your team physically being in one space. Leaders can purposefully cultivate their corporate culture virtually. It starts by recognizing that leadership is different than management.
According to Dr. Larry Richards, a lawyer-psychologist who studies and writes about leadership in law firms, management is a system of behaviors designed to control complexity, create order, and produce consistent execution of tasks and strategies that get the work done. For example, identifying and implementing new software tools for collaboration and work production.
In contrast, leadership is a system of behaviors designed to respond to change, uncertainty, and unpredictability. Leaders identify a goal or direction for the organization and mobilize others to move in that direction freely.
In this time of unpredictability, leadership is more critical than ever. One of the most important roles a leader has is to cultivate a positive culture that enhances the talent, diversity, and happiness of the people working in the organization. Entrepreneur Kunal Chandiramani explains that maintaining a culture is like preserving the soul of your organization—a cumulation of its shared beliefs and values and those of its people.
Blane Prescott of the consulting firm MesaFive LLC agrees. At a recent meeting of the Chicago chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators, Prescott noted that great leaders are the single most common factor among the best performing practices, practice groups, committees, offices, and firms. He cautioned firms about treating leadership positions as a merit badge for rainmaking or as a rotating chair. There are specific skill sets and capabilities that should be tapped for leadership posts, he said. Leaders need to be recruited, developed, and recognized to maintain a cohesive firm culture.
How to promote corporate culture during COVID-19
There are countless tips on how to cultivate and maintain organizational culture. However, the following seem particularly apt for lawyers who are leading remote teams in unpredictable times, such as a global pandemic.
Provide context for why your organization exists
Communicating your organization’s mission and values is more important than ever. Working isolated from colleagues (on top of juggling childcare, schooling, and other personal obligations) may cause people to question how fulfilled they are in their jobs. And feeling that your work makes a difference is a primary source of job satisfaction.
An organization can’t create a positive culture without finding the meaning behind its work. The explicit articulation of that culture is called for when the workforce is dispersed. Chandiramani says everyone in the organization should know what the organization’s mission is and leverage it, even within their own lives.
“The ‘why’ should define everything the company does in simple words so that, even when your employees work in different time zones, in different places, and on different tasks, their knowledge of the mission influences whatever they do,” he said.
This notion is echoed in a TED talk on inspiring action from leadership expert Simon Sinek. Sinek says that leaders should think, act, and communicate from the organization’s “why” rather than its “how” or “what.” He explains that people respond to why we do things, rather than what we do.
Foster positive social connections
Maintaining a positive corporate culture during COVID-19 requires leaders to promote positivity and connectedness regularly. This looks different when informal interactions in the hallway or around the watercooler aren’t occurring. Instead, leaders should schedule video chats or meetings during which they can express gratitude, lift the silver linings, and demonstrate an optimistic attitude during a difficult situation.
Because workplace relationships are an essential part of a positive corporate culture, leaders must foster relationship-building virtually. When employees hardly know their colleagues and interact only sporadically, it can be difficult to cultivate a strong culture.
Consider developing an in-depth plan to introduce new and established employees, both individually and in small groups. To build camaraderie, try virtual team meals, games, or a book club. Mathilde Collin, co-founder and CEO of app Front, suggests creating a #lifewfh Slack channel for employees to connect socially and share ideas on fun things to do inside. Collin also recommends using Bonusly, a tool that awards team members with virtual cookies for living the company’s values. These cookies can be used to buy gift cards or to give back to charitable causes such as the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Response Fund.
Emphasize employee well-being
Healthy employees are key to a positive corporate culture. Leaders should check in regularly on the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of their teams. Some people I know participate in virtual Zumba classes or mid-day stretches. app Front employees benefit from a virtual guided meditation session every week and confidential counseling on challenges related to work, finances, or other personal issues.
If you know a lawyer or judge who is struggling with the mental health effects of the pandemic, there are myriad free and confidential resources available through the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program.
Trust productivity, not adherence to a rigid schedule
Remote workers should be trusted to forge flexible schedules that allow them to be productive. This is especially true for working parents who are supervising children at home. Leaders must be comfortable with their teams working at unconventional times, such as after their children go to bed or before they awaken in the morning.
Trusting your employees is good practice without a pandemic but essential for keeping talented employees engaged as they navigate the challenges of working from home.
Listen and make your dispersed staff feel heard
Being a good listener is part of building a positive corporate culture. According to research compiled by CultureIQ, 86% of employees at companies with a strong organizational culture said senior leadership listens to their concerns. This is compared to 70% of employees at companies without a strong culture. Effective leaders build a positive corporate culture by listening to their employees and responding with empathy.
While it may be more difficult to judge body language over Zoom, I’ve heard many anecdotes that claim virtual meetings are an asset to being able to listen and learn. Just in the last week, I heard the dean of the University of Michigan Law School say that he can connect with faculty and students more personally because they are conversing over their computers in casual settings such as the kitchen table. I also heard a trial lawyer say that the close-up view of a witness’s face via Zoom gave him more information to judge credibility than looking at a witness across the courtroom.
Whether in person, via videoconferencing, or by phone, strong leaders must listen and make sure those around them feel heard.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
I asked Prescott about the characteristics of leaders who are successfully building and maintaining corporate culture during COVID-19. “They are doing a lot of group communication, but probably even more important, a lot of one-on-one communication,” he said. “Some of the leaders who I think of as being the best are allocating three hours a day on their schedule just to video conference individually with lawyers and staff, to check in, [to] talk about what they are doing for the firm, to ask people’s opinions about what the firm should be doing.”
(By the way, he said they are doing the same with their top clients and are reaping the benefits of deeper, more meaningful relationships with CEOs and general counsels.)
Sure, that’s a lot of time to spend on Zoom. But the stakes are high and the results seem worth it.
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