Your Changing Work Culture, Five Culture Myths, and a Sensible Proposal

Thomas Bateman
5 min readMay 30, 2021

If and when you return to your pre-pandemic job, you will compare your workplace to what it was like before COVID-19 struck. Washingtonian Media CEO Cathy Merrill wrote this month an op-ed about the likely loss of her company’s pre-pandemic culture of collaboration and creativity. Eager for her employees to return to the office, she anticipates an erosion of collaboration and creativity, and describes the risk of job loss for those who continue working from home.

Many Washingtonian staff members didn’t like what they read; employees protested her column with a one-day work stoppage. The top executive and her staff were not exactly on the same page about what will happen next. As executives, employees, and you talk your workplace cultures — before or after the pandemic, and pre-post changes — you can be alert to these common misconceptions:

Image by Brenda Tylke from Pixabay

Myth #1: Organizations have identifiable cultures.

Well, some do, but many don’t. Observers often claim that organizations have personalities, but like people they are complicated and often perplexing. Employees commonly see their workplace very differently from the way top executives view it, and different units have different subcultures. Many organizations don’t have an identifiable culture or one that people truly understand.

This makes it difficult to find the most accurate descriptions or “traits.” Consider how well each of the following adjectives captures your organization’s “personality”: bureaucratic, innovative, people-oriented, results-oriented, customer-focused, inclusive, risk-averse, entrepreneurial, traditional, action-oriented, competitive, collaborative, adaptive, fast-moving, transparent, purpose-driven, cost-conscious, out of control, efficient, flexible, top-down, fear-driven, and siloed. Maybe you had a clear answer for each, or maybe you were uncertain. What if you had to identify just two or three words that best describe where you work, could you do it? If those above don’t work for you, plenty of other possibilities exist.

If people agree on what their bosses’ priorities are — that is, when push comes to shove, everyone knows what truly matters most and least — the culture is strong. In contrast, a weak culture is harder to interpret, with few or mixed signals, more disagreements and misunderstandings, and confusion about priorities.

Myth #2: A strong organizational culture helps performance.

Cultures sometimes help and sometimes hurt employee performance, job satisfaction, commitment, and turnover. Similarly, an organization’s culture can help or hurt its overall performance, or be so weak as to have little effect in either direction. Decades of research findings about this topic are complex and challenging to interpret.

A strong culture sends clear signals about what the employer and managers expect from people. Some want rigid rule-following and passive compliance, perhaps rewarding deference and kissing up rather than excellent job performance, innovation, and other contributions. Others might demand nonstop, sky-high effort and competitiveness, with productivity being king. Complicating things, what works well in the short run — for instance, a robust results-oriented culture — can burn people out and destroy performance over time.

Myth #3: We can usually tell a lousy culture from a good culture.

Often, people consider a culture to be good — positive — when they like their workplace, stress isn’t too high, and coworkers get along. But better cultures achieve additional vital purposes like high-quality goods and services, innovation, a reputation for ethics, and the ability to adapt to change.

So who’s to tell good from bad? Sometimes everyone can, for instance, when evaluating how the post-COVID culture compares with the pre-COVID culture. Comparing the two can reveal whether things are better or worse than before — a helpful exercise when seeking to create a culture that is both productive and positive for employees.

Whatever the specifics might be, consider your culture to be a good one if it includes a clear commitment to the work, the people, and the ever-changing external environment. Not many organizations and bosses can truthfully claim all three; if you and yours can, hearty congratulations to all!

Myth #4: Culture takes a long time to change.

When corporate culture became a hot topic in the 1980s, the conventional wisdom was that it took seven to 10 years to change it. Today that seems, well, sluggish.

CEO commitment and persistent leadership are crucial to making cultural change happen. Even then, it’s a tough slog when long-standing ways of thinking and behaving are deeply engrained, especially if influential managers actively resist change.

Encouragingly, though, managers and even their direct reports have some control in their subunits and teams; they can sometimes quickly and dramatically influence their local subcultures or “climates.” Try to identify some positive differences you can attempt through focused conversations with your direct reports or coworkers.

Myth #5: Post-pandemic, we should try to return to normal while still attending to safety.

Safety still matters, but “return to normal” is a lame aspiration. The phrase implies going back unthinkingly to whatever good, bad, or mediocre culture existed pre-pandemic.

As the pandemic eased in the United States in May, CEO Merrill wrote in her op-ed, “Now, we face re-creating a workplace where a good culture of trust will be harder to build.” True, trust and cultures are harder to build when working remotely. But regardless of circumstance, good-faith efforts merged via civil conversations offer building blocks for positive change.

Here’s another reason for hope and action: People now are readier than usual to find and embrace constructive change. There is no better time for thoughtful conversations, learning from recent experience, and not just rebounding but strengthening your workplace. Talk explicitly and frankly about strategies for going forward, including a desirable culture that will proactively drive a strong future.

Consider a variety of work arrangements and new styles of interacting, making decisions, and performing. Experiment with different versions of participative decision making, performance management, and culture-building. Try more and better two-way communications — people at all levels exercising their voices, managers providing psychological safety for direct reports to be open and honest, and partnerships everywhere updating and revitalizing work processes as appropriate.

Anticipating and creating the future of the workplace is not a straightforward question of working at home vs. going to a centralized workspace, or a simple matter of an inside executive or outside consultant to suggest one. It’s a matter of coworkers creating a customized hybrid model best for their enterprise — that is, best for both the work and the people.

No single leader will design the ideal model for the future of work. But purposeful team-based discussions are the best way to try. Such high-involvement cultures, when managed well, can build trust (face-to-face and via supporting technologies), inspire better ideas, generate faster and more effective action when circumstances change again, and proactively prepare for and create the best possible futures.



Thomas Bateman

Tom Bateman lives in Maine and Chicago and is professor emeritus, McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.