Culture Online

Merriam-Webster defines culture as, “the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic.” Culture and culture change have been central to leadership practice in the past decade. It is no less important, but it is much more difficult, to manage, in this age of Zoom “rooms” and Teams “chats.” 

When we were 100% face-to-face, we had thousands of touch-points every day to establish and sustain patterns of culture. Culture was created every time you passed someone in the hall, overheard a conversation in the break room, stopped by the “water cooler,” messed up or cleaned out the fridge, shared a meal, or heard stories of weekend adventures.

Life online has changed all that. Our interactions are constrained to audio and video. Our physical beings are replaced with a gallery of tiny images. Social banter only happens when we are waiting for the last person to show up—if then. Some of my clients are quiet as they wait, so they lose even this moment for relaxed interaction. Outside of real-time engagement, we connect with text and email or WhatsApp and WeChat. These platforms collapse interaction even further, into words and the occasional picture.

What is culture in such a constrained social context?

How can it be created and sustained? 

What differences and exchanges build cultural patterns in such a constrained container?

In the past fourteen months, we have lived off the memory of our face-to-face cultures. The habits of the past carried us through. We had a shared memory of patterns from our collective lived experience. Over time, those memories are fading. People leave and others take their places. Roles shift. Teams break up and reform. New habits emerge as we jump from one virtual “room” to the next. As organizations slide into permanent, hybrid work spaces, it will get even more difficult to remember old culture or create new. Wherever they are and whatever they do, people create culture.  Values, conventions, and social practices will emerge in virtual space. If you pay attention, you can influence those patterns toward a culture of productivity, engagement, health, and wellbeing . . . or not. 

Every group will create a culture that fits the personalities of the people and the purpose of their work together. I encourage you and your colleagues to be explicit and intentional as you set conditions for your evolving culture. Explore the patterns you create online today, compare them to the ones you would like to have, and experiment with shifting the patterns over time. Here are some questions that can help you uncover and intentionally reshape the online culture of your team.

What happens before a meeting or after it?  We know that complex patterns like culture start before and continue after scheduled times. The stated purpose for the meeting, the agenda, list of attendees, pre-work, and connections to previous meetings all set conditions for cultural interactions. Follow-up completes the cycle with minutes (formal or informal), action items, acknowledgements and thanks, invitations for interaction. Careful and complete communications before and after the meeting set conditions for performance during it.

And, the narrative matters. The style of communication both creates and reflects the culture of a group. The story is at least as important as the facts when you rely on written communiques for cultural content. 

How do you open and close a meeting? In the world of culture, intentional ritual can take the place of accidental interaction. It may feel a bit formal and stiff at first, but a structured practice to open and close a meeting serves a variety of purposes. First, it gives an opportunity for transition—which is a rare gift when virtual meetings are scheduled back to back. It distinguishes one meeting from another and helps people know how to relate to each other. It can set expectations for performance of a group or open the door for people to show up as their authentic, at-home selves. Repetition reduces uncertainty and lowers perceived risk. The content and structure of opening and closing give opportunities to frame desired patterns and avoid destructive ones. Finally, both the implicit and explicit messages of the ritual can support belonging and shared identity. 

How does a person enter or exit? The social fabric is woven as individuals relate to each other and to a group in online environments. The coherence of a group contributes to personal comfort, as well as to efficiency and effectiveness of a group over time. But the tight connections of a group have a shadow side that appears when someone new joins or when a long-time member leaves. A newcomer needs to feel welcomed and to learn the explicit and implicit rules of the culture. A group experiences loss and must rebalance when someone leaves. If you are intentional about these points of transition, they can be used to created or demonstrate healthy cultural patterns.

What happens when someone misses a meeting? In physical space, it is obvious when someone is absent. Notice is taken; concern is expressed; questions are asked. Online, though, someone can disappear without drawing attention. Not only does this alienate the missing person, but it also sends a signal to everyone else on the team about the value on individuals and their contributions. It does not take much time to open a meeting acknowledging who is and is not present. At close, a standard action can be to connect with people who were absent and fill them in on details that reach beyond the formal meeting minutes.

As an added complication, some people turn off video. Whether this is personal choice or bandwidth constraint, the person is both present and not present at the same time. When you see a dark tile, is that person there or not? Paying attention or not? What patterns do you want to set in your culture about visibility, transparency, and real virtual presence?

Where do you draw the line between the person and the professional? Most virtual meetings include some time for “open mic” encounters. The amount of time allowed for free interaction is an important  cultural pattern. The content of the comments is another strong sign of culture. What do people feel free to talk about? Weather? Family wellbeing? Funny stories? Business updates? Jokes? Current events? New virtual backgrounds or changes in the real ones? It makes a difference! Pay attention to what you and others contribute and consider what differences and exchange might contribute to your most productive and engaged culture. 

Who speaks and when?  Personal presence and power emerge differently online than in person. Physical size and dress are less important, but speed , pitch, and volume of voice become significant. Visual cues—so important in face-to-face communication—are more subtle online. The challenges of bandwidth, audio clarity, and technology add to the complexity of verbal exchanges. The tight containers of the online meeting tend to speed up a conversation, so it may be difficult for quiet or hesitant voices to be heard. Introverts, who may revel in working at home, face additional challenges when conversations move quickly, and silence is rare. Some people enjoy their own voices too much, or they don’t know how to end a comment. Time keeping is one way to manage longwinded folks. Nonverbal cues, such as hand raising and chat comments, can also help moderate dominant voices and make space for others. You can also agree on a graceful way to interrupt to reframe a question or ask another’s perspective. The options are many.

The culture will be defined by the choices of the group and how they set conditions for full participation. The goal is to adapt continually to shift patterns to be most safe, comfortable, and productive for you. As a closing ritual, you might check in to get feedback to improve collective habits and practices.

How do you use chat? The chat gives a second channel for communication during a meeting. We use it to share resources, take in-the-moment minutes, encourage personal interactions, and allow for quick parallel processing. Direct messages may be used to enrich a conversation and allow for allies to connect, or they may be distracting or disturbing for the collective conversation. However your group uses chat, the rules should be as explicit as possible. Not only will that codify the cultural patterns, but it will also make it easier for newbies to find their place and for dominant voices not to unintentionally disrupt group work.

What does art have to do with it?  The constraints of online interaction narrow our frame of reference. Over time, we can feel (and be) locked into emotional, cognitive, and physical patterns. Rigidity erodes the creative capacity of individuals and groups, so over time both effectiveness and efficiency degrade. Alternative communication techniques can challenge those patterns. Somatic exercises or artistic opportunities help a group stay agile. People are able to breathe, and a group relaxes into patterns of greater ease and opportunity. Depending on the culture you want to create, you can play music as people enter, include graphic recording, incorporate poetry or visuals into the flow of the meeting, invite members of the group to contribute or guide an activity. Again, the options are many, and the choices are important in setting conditions for a culture of productivity and safety.

As usual, our HSD tools help focus on patterns and prompt generative questions. The answers for your group depend on who you are and what you do. One thing is certain, however, if you do not pay attention to the culture you want, the one you don’t want is sure to emerge.

What are the questions you and your group use to create culture in your online space?

Join a global network of learning about HSD!
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.