Corporate Culture Shock: How COVID-19 Is Forcing Companies to Change

Organizational Renewal
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The latest coronavirus outbreak has become an inflection point in corporate culture for many businesses. It is no secret that public policies focused on limited gatherings, travel restrictions, hygiene, and protecting vulnerable groups have brought with them an onslaught of changes to the workplace, and new habits and behaviors that are likely here to stay. While the pandemic has been a terrible shock to society, the world economy, and public health, it can also be perceived as an opportunity for companies to change, question their long-held beliefs about who they are, and make room for new ideas, people, operations, branding, and markets.

Reeling from the shock of shuttering Ford’s 30 North American auto plants due to the coronavirus outbreak, CEO Jim Hackett told the White House, “Who knows, maybe we should be making ventilators?” Shortly thereafter, Ford’s slogan went from “Go Further” to “Built for Right Now” and “Built to Lend a Hand,” marking the company’s pivot from automaker to PPE supplier and quasi social enterprise. Similarly, General Motors has gone from being an auto company with a mission to create “a future of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion” to one that is “Mobilizing to Combat a Global Crisis,” using its facilities to mass produce masks and ventilators. Ford and GM are now manufacturers of personal protective equipment and their factory workers are, at least for now, producing medical gear instead of vehicles. This impacts not only the production lines but also the very identities and public perception of these auto giants.

Just like Ford and GM, many businesses are being forced to pivot, not just what they do, but who they are and how they brand themselves. For some businesses, the change has been welcome, but for others, it has been met with resistance, causing corporate culture shock. But is being forced to change and question your firm’s identity such a bad thing?

One of the keys to successfully ideating, incubating, and scaling new businesses within existing firms, is that its leaders neutralize the resistance, assumptions, and organizational culture that impede growth and innovation. Organizations often fall victim to their own success, believing that what worked for them in the past, will work for them in the present and future. This was the case with firms as well-known as Polaroid, Nokia, and Kodak. Each had deeply entrenched notions about who they were, how they worked, and what was best for their business. Their unwillingness to challenge their own assumptions and identity led to their eventual downfall.

Businesses and the workforce are discovering new ways of life that challenge conventional notions of “business as usual.” Rather than bracing for things to go back to normal and resisting the disruptions sparked by COVID-19, the businesses that pivot in response to recent changes in the market and corporate life, and embrace these shifts as a new normal, will likely be the ones to not only survive, but thrive. While it can be difficult to distinguish disaster from opportunity, unprecedented disruptions such as COVID-19 can help businesses to overcome their own deeply entrenched beliefs. Some might move from having inflexible work policies that required employees to work onsite to going permanently virtual, seizing this moment as an opportunity to do away with costly commercial leases. Such cultural changes will eventually trickle down to other areas of the business, from attracting talent that values a flexible working arrangement, lowering operational costs, and finding new and creative ways to connect and be productive online.

To borrow from Peter F. Drucker, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic.” How has your firm’s logic of yesterday changed due to COVID-19? How has your corporate culture and identity changed?

As Melinda Gates said, the novel coronavirus is not a once in-a-century pandemic like the Spanish Flu of 1918—“we will absolutely have more of these.” Take this moment as an opportunity to challenge your long-held beliefs about your organization’s culture and structure.

What assumptions and aspects of your firm’s culture can the pandemic help you to overcome? How can yours become a nimbler organization in the face of future disruptions?

Vanessa Ceia

Read More Articles in our COVID-19 Series