The Culture-Communications Continuum

by Elizabeth Williams

Communications professionals have been doing a lot of thinking about culture in recent weeks. Our clients are asking questions around how do we take our place-based culture to a virtual world? Is it right to force-fit cultural norms and activities to the new way of working? What if the culture wasn’t so great to begin with? And is it even up to communicators to tackle something as elemental as the organization’s culture. It feels a little above most of our paygrades.

Communications and culture are tightly linked

Whether we like it or not, as communicators we both enable our organizations’ cultures and decide how it’s presented to our employees and even our customers. The language we use, the platform and media choices we make and the way we support manager and executive messaging are all part of a continuum of belief and behaviour and shared meaning.

If things are feeling a little weird right now that’s because the middle element, behaviour, is also getting a little weird. Culture exists in the physical workplace in the form of meetings, office design, tiny rituals, dress code, brand elements, team dynamics and plenty of other subtle and not-so-subtle cues. So what does that look like when we’re at home in our track pants, working out of a corner of the laundry room and growing weary of grinning into a webcam for hours on end?

Organizational culture, basically the rules about how people behave, are super important – comms people need to really think about what the prevailing culture is in their orgs and to understand their role in perpetuating or possibly fixing it.

Understanding culture

A good place to start is to understand what culture really means. While it’s broadly defined as “how we do things around here”, organizational culture is a bit more complicated. On a recent podcast, our guest, Vera Asanin, President and Editor-in-Chief at Your Workplace used the analogy of visiting somebody’s home.

As soon as we step through the door, we are picking up clues about the culture of the family. Do they take their shoes off? What’s on the walls? Is it a tidy place or a bit cluttered? How do the family members speak to one another? What are their rituals and duties? How do they solve conflict? How do they behave when guests are around? You get the picture.

The same thing applies in the workplace. Thinking back to the first time you walked into your organization’s location, what struck you? Were people friendly or reserved? What was on the walls? How were the desks arranged? How did people collaborate, socialize and resolve conflict? How did leaders behave versus the rest of the team?

Now fast forward back to the track pants and the laundry room and we can see why many employees are struggling to understand what new behaviours look like and how they can preserve valued rituals and ways of working.

Why communicators really, really need to care

The thing about culture is that it’s part of the overall health of the organization. It drives engagement, productivity, collaboration, innovation and ultimately whether great talent stays or leaves. Right about now, a lot of people are in a lot of laundry rooms wondering if they will stick around after things settle down.

So what’s a Fearless Communicator to do? Here are some of the things we talked about with Vera:

  • Spend some time with your HR team and the leadership team figuring out what the key elements of your culture are
  • Are there parts of the culture that need to improve?
  • Are there elements we like that are at risk in a new working model?
  • Do we have a chance at a do-over on a broken culture?
  • How should leaders at all levels be communicating key cultural norms? What new behaviours can they adopt? What old rituals are not quite making the transition to a virtual workplace?
  • Are employees’ voices as loud as they were before COVID?
  • Should we communicate more frequently?
  • How do we avoid over-communication?

Authenticity is key for culture

Regardless of where we land after working through the culture discussion, the key to building, improving and reinforcing your culture is how well we enable our front-line managers and executives to communicate it. A good place to start is to assess how authentic your leaders sound.

Employees can spot bullshit a mile off, so communicators need to help leaders deliver authentic messages in an authentic, human way. This likely means we have to let them off-leash a little when it comes to scripted, prepared messages. If we substitute canned stuff with guidelines and general narratives, we can enable a more human conversation with employees.

We may need to do a little coaching or even communications training to polish up interpersonal skills such as listening, building consensus, and creating context, but the risk of over-preparing our leaders is far greater than the occasional goof in the other direction.

For more thinking about how culture and communications work together in the new workplace, check out the podcast. If you need any help getting things sorted out in your organization, drop us a line and we’ll be pleased to help.