Back to the Office? The CFOs Role in Rebuilding a Culture of Confidence.

By Michelle Gibbings

When champagne corks were popping to ring in the New Year, many organisations and employees were hoping that 2021 would see the end of uncertainty and unpredictability. However, COVID-19’s long tail has challenged the hope of quickly reverting to a standard workplace style.

A survey of Chief Economists globally highlighted this challenge.  

When asked the question, “In your view, which of the following pandemic-induced/reinforced developments will have the longest lasting impacts?”,  participants in the World Economic Forum’s Chief Economist Survey (2021) concluded that it is remote work that will have the most significant impact. Remote working was deemed more relevant than reinforced historical inequalities, growing market power of tech giants, the bigger role of governments and parallel supply chains and deglobalisation.

The World Economic Forum noted that while the long-term impact of remote work on workplaces and productivity is still unclear, early evidence suggests that employees worked longer hours and were more productive at home (on average). 

A UK study by Citrix found approximately 75% of employees value working remotely so much they would take a put cut in return for a flexible job. A report by Pitcher Partners and Bastion Reputation Management and Bastian Insights also highlighted the gap between employee and employer expectations about the workplace’s future. 

CFOs and executive teams now face the challenge of balancing varying needs and creating a healthy and thriving culture.

Good culture is deliberate

Culture influences how we think and behave. One of the world’s leading culture experts, Edgar Schein, defines it as: “Culture is a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, 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”

Organisational culture is essentially the collective patterns of behaviour of people at work. It is commonly described as the way we do things around here. However, over time those patterns can be unhelpful, even destructive. 

An organisation’s culture comes with labels, such as agile, toxic, lazy, or innovative and progressive. There will also typically be a dominant culture in large organisations that permeates the organisation and then many sub-cultures operating at a team level.

I have seen organisations where the over-arching culture was competitive, aggressive and bureaucratic. Yet, individual teams could work around that and provide wonderful examples of teamwork, collaboration, and connection. They specifically chose to operate differently.

It’s your choice

While these times are challenging, what’s needed to create great teams hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s just elevated the importance of connection and engagement. At its core, people are brought together to get things done. 

The rationale is that more gets done together than alone. However, the merit of that logic depends on how well the team works together. And often, engagement, connection and trust are absent, which impacts effectiveness.

Why? Because not enough effort is devoted to understanding how the team best works together. The leader may spend a lot of time on the ‘what’ (i.e. the work the team needs to do), and not pay enough attention to the ‘how’ (i.e. how they come together to do that).

Seek clarity of purpose

Teams achieve more when they have a common goal and clarity on how they work together. 

The leader will usually know what each team member is doing and how they contribute to the whole. However, often team members don’t have the same level of understanding. This ambiguity breeds disengagement and distrust. It also means that team members can’t leverage each other’s skills as effectively.  

Creating clarity on the who, what, why, when and how is critical.

Target motivation levers

In 2010, researchers, Amabile and Kramer, asked leaders and employees what they thought motivated employees. The purpose of the research was to see if there was a difference in what managers thought motivated employees and what motivated employees.

There were five options: Recognition for good work, Incentive and rewards, Sense of progress, Clear goals and targets and Inter-personal connections.

The managers thought that employees were motivated by being recognised for good work. However, that wasn’t what motivated employees. It was a sense of progress. The researchers found that when workers thought they were making headway in their job or received support that helped them overcome obstacles, their emotions were the most positive and their drive to succeed was at its peak.  

In contrast, on the days when they encountered roadblocks and setbacks, their motivation was at its lowest. Team members want to see that they are making headway and that their contribution is making a difference.  This builds their confidence.

Play safe

Creating a healthy workplace is no longer purely about physical safety, but psychological safety. A psychologically safe workplace is where employees are comfortable sharing what is working or not working for them and how they are feeling.

As Professor Amy Edmondson noted: “Psychological safety isn’t about being nice. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other”. It is knowing your team won’t embarrass, reject or punish you, and where the team trusts and respects each other. Having these elements in place creates a culture where employees can come to work and be their authentic self.

Get involved

The best leaders are willing to get amongst it and understand what it is like to be on the front-line serving customers or working on the shop-floor. They are eager to experience the challenges that their team members confront, so they are better informed and can make wiser decisions.

Leading from the front cannot be done from the comfort of the corner office (or even the open-plan desk). So as the workplace evolves through 2021, take the time to roll up your sleeves and get involved. Lead the change you are seeking to make in your team and inspire their confidence and commitment.

About Author

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert and the author of three books. Her latest book is ‘Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one’.  www.michellegibbings.com.