Blog Oslo Business Forum 2021

Jitske Kramer – Working Cultures After Corona

Jitske Kramer is a best-selling author, corporate anthropologist, and renowned speaker. She is the best-selling author of books like Deep Democracy, Jam Cultures, and Work has left the Building. Her work is about how people can build strong tribes, work and live well together. Applying her anthropological lens, Jitske views the coronavirus as a global culture shock. In her keynote at the Oslo Business Forum, she opened leaders’ eyes to the possibility of transformation by rethinking their approach to hybrid work and remote leadership after the pandemic.

Work has Left the Building

In any business, as in any culture or society, people work together guided by common ways of thinking and behaving. Through their experience, they create a culture, and that culture shapes everything they do.

It’s easy for leaders to see culture at play in their businesses. It’s in their rules and policies. In their procedures and processes. In their bricks and mortar. But what happens to an organization’s culture when these things change?

“As a result of the pandemic,” Jitske said. “Work has left the building. And the question is, will it get back in?”

Jitske believes the coronavirus has caused a global culture shock, leaving leaders with uncertainty about the future: do we return to our old ways of doing things, or do we embrace transformative change?

A Gift from Corona: The Space for Change

Culture shock aside, Jitske also believes the pandemic has given us a gift: the opportunity to rethink what we once believed about our working cultures.

At some point in time, we determined the best way to work was for everyone to get into their cars, drive to the same building, and sit together from 9:00 to 5:00. The coronavirus revealed we could work differently.

In the wake of the pandemic, Jitske asked people what they liked about the new way of work. The most common response was “freedom.” People appreciated the flexibility they’ve gained from hybrid and remote work. When Jitske asked people what they missed about the old way of work, the most common response was “connection.” They missed the collaboration and relationships that are more difficult to build remotely.

The question for leaders then becomes: how do we design our work together to balance freedom and connections? As we seek to answer this question, Jitske described four spaces to consider:

  1. The Change Space
  2. The Hybrid Space
  3. The Meeting Space
  4. The Experiment Space

The Change Space

Jitske likened the onset of the coronavirus to culture shock, a well-known anthropological phenomenon that occurs when people are exposed to different norms over a long period of time. Culture shock often occurs in four phases:

1. The Initial Phase. This phase is the onset of change. During the pandemic, it occurred over a few short days as the world acknowledged the severity of the situation.

2. The Honeymoon Phase. In this phase, we are excited by the newness and the novelty of what we are experiencing.

3. The Change Phase. We experience highs and lows in this phase, and each individual progresses through the change differently.

4. The Return Phase. In this phase, we may be eager for re-entry but unwilling to let go of some of the new habits we’ve formed. At this point, many of us experience re-entry shock.

While we each experience culture shock in unique and personal ways, Jitske said one thing is certain: “You come out differently than you went in.”

And when we come out, we start to rethink what we previously knew. We ponder whether to run back to what we had or keep going forward and do things differently. The biggest question leaders face, Jitske said, is “Do we see this time as a crisis or a transformational journey?”

The Hybrid Space

If leaders view what lies ahead as a transformational journey, the next logical question is how do we get there? Jitske noted that in the past, the answer has usually been to work harder. But instead of harder, we need to work differently. This leads to the hybrid space.

Hybrid work has been around for a long time, as a combination of flexible location and flexible time. As we consider our working cultures after the coronavirus, we need to consider new places (where do we find people? how do we make sure we have access to relationships?} and new rhythms (what are our response times? How do we practice balance and find new rituals?) of Work.

Jitske noted there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. As they seek answers, leaders must consider:

  • What is our mission and purpose, the soul of the organization?
  • What are our activities and our organizational goals?
  • What are our preferences and wishes, and who are our people and clients?

The Meeting Space

Asking these questions leads to the meeting space. “The core process of culture-shaping is done in interaction and decision making,” said Jitske. She explained that there are typically two types of interactions in our organizations: bullet point meetings and campfire conversations.

Bullet point meetings are transactional, and we use them to discuss day-to-day topics, organize, reorganize, and plan. These interactions are necessary but are largely ordinary.

Campfire conversations are different. These are the interactions in which real change occurs and culture is shaped. As Jitske says, “Around a campfire, we share feelings, dreams, and create new storylines. In those moments, we shape and reshape our cultures.”

In the past, Jitske has encouraged leaders to ask themselves if they have enough campfire conversations in their organizations. Now, she’s asking them to consider how to have these conversations at a distance, and to change them. Jitske believes we need to have fewer but more meaningful meetings that:

  • Are more human and authentic
  • Occur in safe spaces
  • Create new rituals
  • Establish new etiquette

But how do leaders build these connections when leading from afar? Jitske drew a parallel between remote leadership and the leadership of nomadic tribes. To create connections, a nomadic leader is authentic and human-centric, provides clear frameworks, and creates activities everyone wants to attend. “Because that’s where we create memories,” said Jitske. “And that doesn’t happen through PowerPoint slides and bullet point meetings.”

The Experiment Space

The desire to create connections—to build campfire conversations—leads to the experiment space.

In the experiment space, everything we once thought of as normal is now up for discussion. Jitske referred to it as liminal, saying, “What was, is no longer, what will be, is unknown, and what is, is chaos.”

Taking into account their pandemic experience, leaders and their teams need to create new meaning about what is valuable, what behaviors translate, and how to solidify that with buildings and processes. And in doing so, they can choose to think about it as either chaos or transformation.

Jitske noted the three phases of transformation: separation, transition, and the new normal. This is what many of us are experiencing now, and it requires two types of leadership:

  • Leadership on the going concern. This type of leadership keeps things moving in a forward direction, focusing on day-to-day business operations.
  • Leadership on the extraordinary. This type of leadership engages people and fosters the environment in which positive change and transformation can occur.

A Roadmap for Work After Corona

As her session approached its close, Jitske circled back to the universal question all leaders must answer now: Work has left the building. Will it come back, and how?

Many leaders want a clear roadmap for the journey ahead—and Jitske was keen to provide one. She strongly believes that reshaping your culture requires:

  1. Building campfires to spark initial conversations.
  2. Being creative and finding new cultural solutions.
  3. Experimenting, learning, and managing anxiety.
  4. Returning to the campfire for more conversations.
  5. Solidifying the rituals through our buildings and processes.

“Through this process,” Jitske said, “we will discover what makes us happy.” And with that, we will define what our working cultures will be after Corona.

Visual summary by Raquel Benmergui

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