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Managing Culture in an Atomized Organization

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Mulhearn
October 21, 2022

As government administrations and offices everywhere settle into a new hybrid work environment how do public managers prevent the dissolution of an office culture?

An organization’s culture is defined by values, symbols, certain ways of working process, principles and methods, all of these can be defined as the invisible part of the organization; is a cohesive impetus causing people to act in a uniform manner to common situations.

The interesting thing about organizational culture is that it only exists within the organization—it’s ephemeral to the degree that it’s invisible to people outside the office or agency. But cultural impacts on output are absolutely observable to clients; making cultivation of a positive, coherent culture critical to the performance of any organization.

A hybrid—if not fully-remote—office arrangement is now an inherent feature of workplaces, even in government. Unlike business, though, government transacts in the public good and performance issues related to a tenuous remote-workplace culture should be of concern to all public managers.

How Do Organizational Cultures Form?

The structures that reiterate culture are as ephemeral as their medium. They comprise ideas and symbols, rituals and history that all arrogate to an internal behavior. How then to cultivate a robust culture when people aren’t together working in the same place?

The bedrock of an organizational culture is that it is transmitted to new members: something “that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” This is more than a powerpoint deck or a sign above the microwave, it’s something both internal and integral to all members of an organization.

Members of healthy cultures admire leaders, are guided by a clear and compelling vision, are driven by core values and esteem candid communication, collaboration and constant improvement. Healthy organizational cultures have a strong mission, high levels of employee involvement, internal consistency and adaptability. The interrelationships between members of a culture comprise the ultimate structure of any culture, and while multinational corporations and far-flung federal agencies have wrestled with maintaining cultural consistency in their organizations for decades, the current—and future—degree of disconnection amongst office cohorts is extreme.

Structure and Consistency Matter

A virtual office must provide a clear but open structure, allowing for the picayunes of remote work while at the same time presenting a clear framework for interaction. Because interaction is key, it is important that meetings reflect how vital they are to everyone’s success.

Importantly this interaction is both top-down and employee-driven as actions by both managers and employees serve to promulgate a shared culture. A virtual organization must provide “substitutes for socialization”, to both signal to groups that informal engagement is encouraged, but also provide an outlet for isolated members of the group. Thus, successful meetings are structured to provide opportunities for ideas to take hold and develop naturally, are utilized effectively and provide some benefit to the participants.

Some ways to let this happen:

  • All-hands meetings should be minimized to make time for focused, small-group meetings.
  • Meetings should also provide time for unstructured interactions—make small-talk an agenda item.
  • And team meetings between subject-matter experts should be encouraged to occur without a manager so employees develop ideas and share concerns with peers.

And to more broadly foster culture managers can:

  • Make culture a management priority
  • Communicate cultural ideals
  • Model desired behaviors
  • Recruit and develop for culture
  • Consistently align strategy and culture
  • Recognize and reward desired behaviors
  • Use ceremony and ritual to reinforce culture
  • Actively manage culture

Managers must actively emote positive organizational characteristics and utilize every meeting effectively. But how does someone effectively project culture through a computer screen?

Secrets from the Masters

Leading a virtual meeting is very much like being on stage—to effectively communicate emotion and enthusiasm a manager needs to acknowledge the limitations of the medium and project through them. Not everyone has a theater background but thinking of your virtual office as a stage is an easy first step: look at your audience and speak directly to them, enunciating and speaking from the diaphragm are all tools of the trade that can help.

But to really make a splash managers could look to the masters of small-camera work: social media influencers. Some of their techniques that could be used by anyone include direct engagement, promoting and recognizing other people’s ideas, utilizing informal communication styles and leveraging positive imagery when addressing negative ideas as a comparison.

Effective managers can communicate culture despite the limitations of remote work if they remember the medium they’re navigating and use a small toolkit of effective structural cues. And while some people may have a more natural affinity for utilizing them, these principles of active cultural transmission can be as effective as passive, natural transmission.

As government agencies settle into their new hybrid environments, it’s important that they recognize how vulnerable culture is and take active steps to mitigate the effects of a remote workforce.

Author: Patrick Mulhearn, MPA, is a project manager and the director of broadband policy for CTC Technology & Energy, a public sector broadband consultancy. Prior to his work in the private sector, he was the policy director for a local government elected official in Santa Cruz, CA, where he focused primarily on policies relating to telecommunications and transportation infrastructure. He can be reached at [email protected].

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2 Responses to Managing Culture in an Atomized Organization

  1. Steve Endsley Reply

    October 22, 2022 at 1:51 pm

    Good article, nails the modern Public Administration milieu…

  2. Robert Joyce Reply

    October 22, 2022 at 11:58 am

    Thank you for the article. We need to do more hands on field work in these communication strategies/tactics. In 1988 I was hired by the US Department of Energy to put in place a new intern program. We hired over 110 new individuals in five years before Clinton imposed a reduction-in-force on DOE. The critical issue, however, was not the new employees. When I was upset about losing a bright young man to a doctoral program in chemical engineering, one of the senior executives on the panel that ordered me around told me that it was OK, because the primary goal of the intern program was to push/drive the MISSIONs of the agency and that was happening all over the place. You don’t need any more war stories, but new organizational structures will need new mission driving communications and group training structures.

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