Reinventing Cult-ure In The New Normal

The 9/11 tragedy served to bring us together; the pandemic seems to have pulled us apart. Leaders will have to work hard to reinvent, rather than restore, a winning corporate culture.

The best of a bad thing? I read almost daily that the post Covid-19 pandemic world of business ‘will never be the same.’ And it won’t. In my midcap universe, some enterprises failed over the last nine months and others are now on the edge. For those that survived, significant paradigm shifts have taken place, some never thought possible. Among those, working remotely and meeting virtually dramatically reduced travel costs and some even realized that expensive occupancy costs no longer need to be considered ‘fixed.’

In my mind, working remotely is the leader of that pack. Many employees found that, properly equipped, they could carry out their job responsibilities at home just as effectively as in the office. Holding down the fort for any kids that were in school one week and out the next came as an unexpected benefit. Some executives and managers who historically discouraged such remote working found that high caliber work product can be delivered without observing the process. No doubt these circumstances have caused many to reevaluate work/life balance.

And then there was the explosion of virtual communications. Being highly restricted in our ability to visit customers, remote factories or offices or to schedule in-person ‘group’ meetings, user-friendly virtual tools were quickly and widely adopted and with them, the inherent competition to have the best ‘background’ screen. The economic benefit of these technologies has earned them a significant place in our communication protocols; after all, why fly two or three people to attend a one- or two-hour meeting?

Transition to the downside

In 2001, the tragic events of 9/11 served to pull us all together, families, communities, enterprises and, of course, the nation. For a time, we were of one mind, we were all connected.

Not so with Covid-19. The uncontrolled pandemic tore us apart wreaking havoc on families, businesses, school systems and of course the medical community. Add to that polarized national and regional political campaigns and the frequent challenges to each camp’s credibility. From my view, unlike post 9-11, we have become very disconnected.

A lecturer once wrote the word ‘culture’ on the screen and noted that within it lay the word ‘cult.’ I’ve seen many enterprises, and been fortunate to lead a few, where belief in the entity and its success was much like a cult experience. The connection, the shared values, the mutual support, the spirit, the energy, the chatter in the halls and in the breakrooms, the sense of purpose. It was exciting to go to work and often a clock or watch at 5PM served no purpose.

To me, with the post-pandemic ‘new normal’ comes a challenge, perhaps even a downside. Some enterprises will have fared well and hardly missed a beat, but many others will find themselves well out of tune. Even ‘essential’ businesses that kept operating have not been immune. Masks, social distancing and ‘clinical’ virtual communications have literally put more distance between us. The vision and shared purpose have been compromised and it’s unlikely that any of us will be able to restore the culture that was—nor should we try.

Some returning colleagues will have redefined their work/life balance, others may resist returning at all, having adapted to their own new normal and still others will return with equal or greater energy, passion and commitment than when they left. The burden of reinvigorating the culture starts with us, and while I wish I had a punch list of eight actions to ensure success…I don’t.

What I can offer is the advice I would give myself: lead the effort with passion, accept that some of your past ‘culture sponsors’ may now be less connected whether back in the fold or continuing at home and that being so doesn’t make them any less effective in their job responsibilities than before. Embrace those who fill that void. Most of all, focus not on restoring the culture but reinventing it, melding old and new because, post-Covid, things will never be the same.

Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.