What Covid has taught us about culture – and what needs to change

The pandemic has amplified the gap between more and less adaptive workplaces, but turning things around may prove difficult even where the case is clear, says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

We all know what culture eats for breakfast, and that most organisational problems are unlikely to go away unless we improve the culture. This was true before the pandemic, but the importance of culture has only been exacerbated by the global crisis. 

There are three main reasons for this. First, the crisis has amplified the gap between more and less adaptive cultures. To highlight just a few culture dimensions that were already sought after before – but have been critical in mitigating the negative impact of the pandemic on organisations – fluid, flexible, agile, inclusive, entrepreneurial, ethical and of course data-driven cultures have all shown a much stronger propensity to resist (and even thrive during) this crisis. 

That is the main difference between organisations that had to do very little to change their habits – because people were already working from home, collaborating globally, evaluated for what they actually contribute and had great trust in their leaders – and those that felt like dinosaurs hit by an asteroid. HR has been saying this for a while: hierarchical, rigid, formal, political and nepotistic cultures are a death sentence for organisations. But the crisis has proved this.

Second, culture is the fabric of work relations, dictating the rules for social interaction and governing the dynamics of teamwork and collaboration. Its formal aspect is what leaders want it to be – the stuff they report on their websites or HR manifestos. But its tangible, impactful and real dimension is the informal algorithm determining ‘how we do things around here’. While culture is always evolving, this evolution was always based on in-person interactions, including office chitchat, gossip, politics and the construction of social schemas to interpret people’s behaviours. 

Whatever the culture of an organisation, it will need to be well defined to survive the officeless age of work. A strong culture will continue to influence workers’ behaviours even if no one is watching. For all the benefits of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, the one thing technology can’t do is shape a company’s culture. But if a company has a strong culture, it will continue to dictate how people work even if everything happens virtually. Strong cultures are a similar force to national culture, family upbringing or personality: it explains why you do what you do, even when no one is watching. 

Third, culture is shaped by the leadership, and crises are opportunities to lead. So even if organisations have issues that the pandemic exposed as vulnerabilities, there has never been a better opportunity to pivot, change and adjust. This is, in other words, the time to make those cultural changes that can help businesses be future-ready. Smart HR leaders know this, which is why they are honouring the mantra ‘crisis = opportunity’. But the only way to capitalise on this opportunity and drive sustainable change, is to improve the rules of the game. Imagine a person who is taken to A&E because they’ve had a heart attack. The doctor tells them they were lucky to survive, and that unless they change their lifestyle, exercise more and eat and drink less, they can expect this to happen again, with far more severe consequences. That patient will probably commit to making those changes, but will they be serious enough? It can be done, but may require a personality transplant. By the same token, companies have personalities too – we call them cultures and, while they are not fixed, they are also pretty hard to change. 

In short, we probably didn’t need a pandemic to know what more adaptive and healthy cultures look like. But it is often hard to change when you are not forced to do it. The problem is, it’s also hard to change when you are actually forced to do it – because you are under pressure and stressed, because it may be too little too late, and because you are not genuinely persuaded that you really need to change. 

But ultimately, the fundamental role of great leadership is not to adapt to changes – but to create them.

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is professor of business psychology at UCL and Columbia and chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup