A vicious cycle has been taking over many businesses amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
First, many homebound workers have been dealing with stress, fear, and social isolation. One global survey, organised by the University of Minnesota, found “a great deal of uncertainty across multiple life domains, causing increased psychological challenges. Respondents generally felt more stressed, depressed, anxious, nervous and more overwhelmed.” In the United States, nearly 7 in 10 employees told mental health provider Ginger that the pandemic “is the most stressful time of their entire professional career,” the American Journal of Managed Care reported.
At the same time, businesses need workers to be productive. Layoffs have left fewer people handling more tasks. There are widespread reports of people putting in longer hours and losing whatever semblance of work-life balance they may have achieved previously. All of this makes stress even worse.
Businesses have long known that workplace cultures can do a lot to exacerbate or alleviate extreme stress. Cultures in which people are more comfortable and less overwhelmed see all sorts of benefits, including, often, greater focus, strategic thinking and creativity.
As I work with organisations around the world to design their cultures, stress reduction is one of the central goals. This year, I’ve been hearing from executives who are facing a new challenge. They’re asking: How do we instil a positive workplace culture when our teams are not coming together at a physical workplace?
It can be done. Many of the tools used in physical workplaces can, in fact, be translated online into virtual workplace environments. One of the most important tools is semiotics.
Semiotic management systems
Semiotics is, as Encyclopædia Britannica puts it, “the study of signs and sign-using behaviour.” Signs and symbols become imbued with meaning, which can have powerful effects in the human psyche.
This, of course, is often used in marketing. Think of the Nike “swoosh,” which carries the meaning “just do it” without the need for any explication. But signs and symbols can also be used internally in organisations to establish cultural values and norms.
For years we have been studying the ways semiotics can impact organisational outcomes by informing mindsets, beliefs, and behaviours — all key components of workplace culture. We’ve found that when used right, signs and symbols can serve as management tools that not only instil cultural norms, but also re-instil them on a daily basis. They lead to behaviour change.
One thing we do is create culture walls inside offices. Organisations select tiles filled with messages that visually articulate the norms that leaders are seeking to have adopted. These are set up in high-traffic areas. They can contain a wide variety of themes. These culture walls leverage picture superiority and other quirks of human cognition to spread and embed desired beliefs, mindsets and behaviours.
For example, our work with parts of the U.S. military has focused on building a culture of innovation and ending old, established, outdated practices that prevent new ideas from flourishing. So the culture wall at an Air Force Base includes symbols and images aimed at drilling in this idea. One shows two stone tablets with the message, “If it’s not a law, it’s a recommendation” — providing a reminder that personnel don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done.
Organisational psychologist Benjamin P. Hardy (with whom I have collaborated) says signs and symbols like these serve as “transformational triggers” because they are “tied deeply to a set of emotions, memories and goals.”
Semiotics can appear in an organisation in numerous ways. In a series of fascinating experiments, Prof. Sreedhari Desai, of the University of North Carolina, and Maryam Kouchaki, of Northwestern University, found that employees changed their supervisors’ behaviour by displaying “moral symbols” in the workplace. These symbols can include, for example, “posters of moral prototypes” such as Mahatma Gandhi “who have come to be recognised in the collective conscious of a given society for their ethical practices. Alternately, they could be explicit quotations exhorting people to be virtuous.” When these symbols were shown, supervisors became less likely to ask subordinates to engage in unethical behaviour.
These tools don’t stop working when people are working remotely. Through providing staff with virtual backgrounds, for example, organisations can present signs and symbols that reflect the culture they’re working to provide each day. Recently, we’ve had requests for a background that includes this quote from the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” It invokes a sense that employees shouldn’t expect themselves to get everything done immediately.
I also recommend businesses send their employees physical objects or signs for their at-home workspaces. Even something as seemingly trivial as a paperweight or small framed image to put on a desk can have these same kinds of effects.
Of course, the messages conveyed through semiotics cannot exist in a vacuum. They only serve to instil values if the company itself lives out those values through daily behaviours. But as long as employees see their organisation “walk the walk,” they’ll start to experience the intended workplace culture as second nature — and the business will nurture the lower-stress culture employees need at this tumultuous time.
- This blog post expresses the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by rah003, under a Pixabay licence
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Jason Korman is CEO of Gapingvoid Culture Design Group, which serves a variety of enterprise, mid-market, higher education and government clients.
Great article Jason! This makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. We’ve all heard the phrase “out of sight, out of mind”, right? The presence of reminders, totems, or inspiring visuals will keep what we want top-of-mind. This leads me to my next point. Being intentional about what we want to create is the best way to increase the odds that we have the impact we want. Intentionally displaying cultural guides, brand stands, desired behaviors, values… semiotics will definitely raise awareness of what’s important, physically and virtually. The ‘ol marketing “Rule of 7” states that humans need to see/hear something at least seven times before they consider taking action. Semiotics help land the point you’re trying to make in a memorable way. Lastly, the importance of visuals for continuous improvement is key. If you can’t see it, it’s harder to understand. In Lean Manufacturing, The Toyota Production System (TPS) talks about running a “visual factory”. This continuous improvement philosophy emphasizes the importance of letting the reality of the situation be seen so that it can be improved. Semiotics help bring the reality of the situation to the forefront in an impactful, artistic way. Keep up the great work guys!
As comforting as this article sounds, it does not match my experience when, due to the depression of the early 1980s we were forced to move from the Toronto area to a property in rural Ontario equidistant from Toronto and Ottawa. I had been a Senior Editor in a publishing house and the Research Associate for a large metropolitan school board. My husband had been teaching in universities and doing folklore and ethnological fieldwork equipped with his Ph.D. We survived that economic crash by becoming “back to the landers” (never my first choice of lifestyle) and working remotely as editors, primarily in the Canadian university textbook field. As we both had experience in professional settings, that knowledge served us adequately but not, I think, well. I’ve become an expert in human behavior who is acutely aware of how oral communication and face-to-face communication in a physical environment affect brain development and creativity. You can evoke learning already in place by the methods you mention but opportunities for new learning are drastically reduced when you have to resort to written communication, brief electronic video interactions, and almost no meaningful social interaction. I could no longer calculate where we stood in the rest of the industry. The office “water cooler” exchanges that used to convey worlds of information about the personalities and lived lives of fellow workers vanished. The scuttlebutt about situations in other departments and other publishing houses shrank to a trickle then disappeared. Imagine living with family members who cannot see one another — how much of your understanding of the truth and importance of what they communicate depends on visual and aural cues? How much of a company’s motivational force is lost when the personal interest in the other team members becomes so formalized? How do you get to know new members of the workforce or the members working at various echelons outside your level? The straitjacketing of employees represents a qualitative loss to the employer and, in our industry, to the product. While it may appear that the starship is moving towards its goals, half of the thrust rockets have shut down. Those engines have love-names, such as “camaraderie,” “friendship,” “inspiration,” and “high regard.” It’s much easier to control people bereft of these kinds of knowledge so the bosses are slow to realize what else is slipping away, such as the spark of working with people of differing ethnicity and points of view. Perhaps most importantly, workers are forced into an impoverished sound environment. It is estimated that after glucose and oxygen, 90 per cent of the brain’s remaining need for energy comes from sound. When that sound comes from meaningful social interactions plus the noise of transportation and the hum of office machines, the brain thrives. In a sound-poor environment, the brain literally shrinks. The “mental” issues arising from the pandemic are not only economic. Without sufficient sound input through the right ear to the left-brain, the spectrum of mental illnesses appears. While Jason Korman’s suggestions will cheer and encourage workers during the pandemic, they cannot replace the interactions of people working towards common goals in common spaces.