A strong culture is what makes the work in an organization worth doing. Culture often determines where we choose to stay, even when the work is hard and not everything is perfect. Culture infuses meaning and purpose in our efforts and nurtures our need for belonging. Yet, we sometimes take culture for granted, that is…until we lose it.
Culture is not a mystery. We know its strong, positive elements. People share a common purpose and follow explicit core values. Expectations are clear, and we welcome and value fresh ideas. We recognize and appreciate individual and team contributions, and we respect the common practice of collaboration. Routines and traditions communicate connections, build our sense of identity, and make the work feel like more than just a job.
Many of us reflect fondly on life prior to COVID. We long for how life and work were before all the disruption. Of course, not all was perfect. We struggled to engage and instruct students in the face of digital, societal, and other life distractions. We countered underfunded education and limited resources. Our work was difficult. Yet, looking back, we can experience a sense of loss.
The pandemic upset many aspects of the culture we experienced, from disrupted routines to lost traditions. Much of what we thought we could assume about our work no longer applied. It became more difficult to collaborate and communicate. Accordingly, we felt more isolated, less supported, increasingly overwhelmed, somewhat muddled in our sense of purpose, and eroded in our sense of identity.
Culture became a casualty of COVID.
Unfortunately, culture does not necessarily rebound on its own. Many underlying conditions have changed our work and shifted our expectations. Restoring routines has proven difficult. Efforts to revive old traditions have, at times, felt contrived. Even renewing and refreshing professional relationships has sometimes been a challenge.
If we hope to have a strong, supportive, productive culture once again, we need to rebuild it. Culture cannot be left to chance. Waiting and hoping that our pre-COVID culture or an even better one will reappear is an unwise choice. We need to be purposeful, strategic, and persistent right now in our efforts to create a work culture we want and need. But where do we begin?
Here are five places to start:
First, we can easily revisit our central purpose and values. What driving force defines our organization? What do we want to accomplish and for what do we want to be known? What do we believe about the people who are part of our work, and who will benefit from it? How will we become our best selves?
Second, we can rebuild the personal connections, support, and sense of belonging that make working together worthwhile. How can we share our successes and what we learn with each other? How can we restore our shared commitments and rebuild trust? What does it mean to be a part of this organizational community, and how do we want to make it special?
Third, we can be clear about the commitments we make to our students and their learning. What can students expect from us? How will we build their capacity and motivation to learn? How will we prepare them for their futures? How will we support them while also nurturing their independence?
Fourth, we can decide what will we not accept or tolerate. What will not have a place in our culture? What will we promise each other to always avoid and reject? What will we do when we are faced with the unacceptable?
Fifth, we can establish routines and traditions to communicate who we are and what we value. Routines communicate what we value in our daily work. Traditions represent our values and what we long to celebrate. What routines need to be re-established, and what new routines should we adopt? What traditions should we continue, and what new ones should we establish?
Building or rebuilding culture takes time and persistence. We will experience setbacks that require adjustments along the way. However, there are few forces that are more defining and influential than culture to drive the success, satisfaction, and sanity we seek.