The ‘new way we work’ & overcoming the collective culture shock of COVID-19

It’s clear to everyone that the way we work is changing, but the question is: how can the workplace change with us?

In the emerging context of the ‘Great Resignation’, in particular, organisations need to adopt a holistic approach to workplace experience — benefiting the individual employee, the professional community, the business itself and its customers too.

While few of us would choose to relive 2020 & 2021, our pandemic experiences have shaped our future workplace needs. To what extent, and how that can be managed, was the topic of debate at our recent Dare to Share webinar ‘The new way we work’. You can watch the whole session here or keep reading for the key takeaways.

COVID-19 and its ‘collective culture shock’

It’s no surprise that we’ve changed how we work, because the pandemic has been an example of collective culture shock. Anthropologists define ‘culture shock’ as a person’s experience when they move to a cultural environment different from their own. It often involves feelings of disorientation, information overload, and boredom, to name a few. And those feelings sound familiar to a lot of us after weathering 2020 and 2021.

Kalervo Oberg first introduced the four-stage model of culture shock in 1954, outlining:

  • The honeymoon stage

  • The negotiation or transition stage

  • The adjustment stage

  • and the adaptation stage.

Let’s look at each in a little more detail — and how it relates to our pandemic lives. Because while individuals respond to the stages differently, the overall experience en masse follows a pretty similar path indeed (you may even recognise yourself in some of the descriptions below!)


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The honeymoon stage

In the honeymoon stage of culture shock, we view the differences between the old and new cultures as exciting and different. During COVID, we learned that changing our workplace could be a real productivity booster while benefiting our health and wellbeing.

Some of our webinar participants told us that they enjoyed working under trees in the sun, out in nature, at Helsinki’s beach cliffs, and at their summer cottages. It was nice to work from home for a while, spend more time with family, and catch up on our favourite television shows.

But like all honeymoon periods, this stage can only last for so long.

The transition stage

The second stage is where things get tough. The transition stage is where differences between the old and new start to cause frustration and anxiety. When we began to realise just how different our lives would be during the pandemic and how long these changes might last, that honeymoon period went out of the window.

During this transition stage, people often feel lonely and disconnected; struggling to communicate. And many of us felt the frustration of missing loved ones or not having a simple in-office meeting to kickstart productivity.


The adjustment stage

But we had to keep going, and ultimately we learned to adapt to the new way of working.

In the adjustment stage, people develop new routines and grow accustomed to the new culture. Think about how much more comfortable we are using technologies like Zoom, Miro, and more — we adjusted and built routines around these tools to survive.


The adaptation stage

The adaptation stage is where we find ourselves now. This stage is sometimes called the bicultural stage, where people have mastered the new culture and maintained elements of the old one. As we move to a hybrid working approach, we’re all learning to balance ‘traditional’ expectations and new, distributed ways of getting stuff done.

But that balance doesn’t come easy.

Adapting long-term?

To borrow a little more anthropological language, we risk experiencing ‘re-entry shock’ when returning to the office. We’re going to miss working under that tree in the sun — and what about our wellbeing? What happens if we just go back to our desks and don’t get that lunch-time walk that so many of us have enjoyed over the last two years?

This calls for a change in how we approach work. And there are two ways to tackle this issue. We can try the crisis approach, which involves rigidly reverting back to how things were done before (despite the reality having changed). Or we can try the transformational approach, which involves redesigning work within our new context.

As a human-centric experience design agency, you can guess which one we’d recommend…

A transformational model for the new way we work at Hellon

Using the workplace we know best — our own — as a piloting ground, the Hellon team set out to understand what transformational change looked like for our business. And how we could help other businesses to design their work environment of the future too.

Our process followed a typical ‘Double diamond’ framework, where we built upon a foundation of understanding the here and now, to explore, design and adopt new solutions and ways of working.

It was by surveying our employees and co-creating solutions with them that we realised a fixed approach (50% in the office, 50% at home, for example) simply wouldn’t work. Hellonians are too often required to be creative, analytical, flexible, collaborative and to come together as a tribe to solve our clients’ problems.

Chances are your company has similar criteria for success — and that the pandemic has also got in the way of the structures you had in place before?

In short, there’s no such thing as a ‘typical workweek’ for Hellonians. So we couldn’t force a cookie-cutter approach to hybrid working either — not if we wanted happy, engaged employees and quality outputs. Only 31% of employees agree that the pandemic has made them more productive, so we needed to find a better balance.

Armed with that insight, we could start to identify the other stakeholders involved in our transformational design: our clients and our business’s success as well.

The four lenses of Hellon’s ideal work environment

We identified four lenses through which to consider our human-centric redesign here at Hellon. Some of the following lenses may appeal and make sense to you, others won’t. That’s because every workplace is different — and the ‘Double diamond’ exploration is our way of helping you take the best steps forward.

Individual

Our first lens is the individual. How can you support the mental and physical wellbeing of your workers while providing flexibility and professional growth? It’s a big question, no doubt — but one you need to ask.

Because when we consider the individual, we can design and offer up flexible solutions that adapt to employees’ lives, emotions and work-style preferences. And when you learn that 40% of the global workforce is considering leaving their employer this year, looking after your talent becomes business-critical to say the least.

Community

Second, we need to think of our communities. How can you support relationship-building and a sense of belonging beyond physical presence? How can you make everyone feel like part of the tribe?

After all, strong tribes have strong relationships, not just strong people.

Business

Of course, you need to consider the interests of your business as well. How do you accelerate productivity and project success all while being a frontrunner in your field?

It’s important to remember that success for one part of your business means success for your community and your workers too.

Customer

Customers are at the core of every business model. So how do you build engagement, collaboration, commitment, and impact for and with your customers?

That’s a lens no business can afford to ignore!

What’s your new way to work? Let’s find out together

If you tuned in to our webinar, then you’ll know that we asked the participants, “How is your employer preparing for the new way we work?” — and the answers were reassuring. The majority (71%) said their employers are either making plans and involving employees in the decision-making, or making plans and simply communicating these plans with the wider team

This is a great start. But it also requires an iterative design approach that allows you to tackle change whenever it happens — because changes happen all the time, not just this once.

Working with Hellon, we’ll help you shape a transformation that suits all stakeholders involved, by asking:

  • Set the scene - What change needs to happen? We surveyed our employees to ask what they wanted to keep from their pandemic work experiences and used their answers to help us determine what needed to change.

  • Create employee-centric values - What does your organisation stand for? It’s always important to keep track of your company values, and it’s even more critical during times of significant change and upheaval. Take time to see if your values have changed during the pandemic and adjust accordingly.

  • Ideate future scenarios - What allows you to work (considering the lenses that are relevant to you)? Consider how to create an ideal workplace that brings together talented individuals and business success. There are many different ways to create a new work environment. This is your chance to consider all kinds of combinations.

  • Adapt to new routines - This is the fun part! Cherrypick ideas that are meaningful to your organisation and will work best for your employees. There’s no single correct solution. Your business will have different needs, tools, schedules, and processes than any other organisation. All it takes is a little time trying out new ideas and seeing which ones work the best for your community, your business, and your customers.

     

Interested to learn more about how we’ve co-created our new way of working — and how we can help you do the same? Then you can get in touch with the team today. You can also watch (or rewatch!) the full webinar here.