Organizational Cultures of Well-Being

Organizations large and small are starting to re-assemble back in offices and considering what kind of culture they want to see. Part of this culture work is creating one that supports well-being.

What was the culture of your organization like before March 2020? Was it one that had parties for birthdays, team development retreats, or brown bag lunch-and-learns? These are just some of the rituals, practices, and habits that can contribute to culture-building.

Culture can be thought of as “people like us do things like this” It’s about defining who we (the people like us) are and what kind of stuff we do. For many organizations culture is something that just happens and isn’t paid much attention to unless what happens is toxic or harmful.

Culture is part organic and partly designed. Like any complex system, it can be encouraged and influenced, but not controlled. What is certain is that our organizational cultures have an enormous effect on our well-being. That’s probably never been more true than now.

Well-being Within Cultures

What do people like us do around here? That’s a question worth starting with. What many organizations are struggling with right now is answering that. After two years of largely remote work, many organizations are entertaining some variant of hybrid work for individuals or entire teams. This in itself is a culture change.

Consider that many of those working in offices will still be conducting much of their work that looks and feels remote because their colleagues, clients, or customers are still working that way. It’s why the language of a return to work is so fraught with problems.

Where does well-being live within this? Well-being is effectively the means of keeping a culture alive. Prior to the pandemic, we had the luxury to have cultures exist on autopilot. Now, the design factors that influence culture cannot be decoupled. If people are unwell, they will not contribute to building a culture — or at least an attractive one.

Culture requires engagement and motivation, energy, health (yours or those you need to care for), and attention are all things that have been affected by the pandemic. They will not magically return with a physical presence in the office. If anything, the problems of health might be exacerbated.

Design for Well-being: Considerations

The key ingredients in shaping a culture of well-being require we consider our organizations as systems. Fitness memberships, an additional allotment of massages to benefit packages, or health-promoting app subscriptions can help individuals, but they have little bearing on culture.

Designing for culture requires strategies that consider the aforementioned qualities of health and how they intersect with one another and among people.

  1. Leadership. Without leaders who recognize that well-being is cultivated through organizations there is little hope. Organizations are more than their leaders, yet it’s these leaders that point to priorities. Leading by words and deeds is important. While leadership teams don’t need to model every good behaviour, they must be prepared to endorse strategies that c
  2. Redefining Productivity. One of the byproducts of the pandemic was that the coupling of restricted movement, boredom, and uncertainty created a mechanism for people to focus on work. Add in lack of commuting times and the ability to schedule back-to-back-to-back meetings due to every interaction being on Zoom or Teams and you have a recipe for toxic productivity. Simple ‘hacks’ like shifting the default in our calendars to 50-minute meetings instead of 60 minutes can help. But what’s more important is recognizing that this productivity trap is finite and likely to come at a cost to well-being later (if not now).
  3. Sharing and Caring. Isolation from each other has had the deleterious effect of separating us from our collective mission or team-based activities. Yes, we may have worked together remotely, but when there is little or no immediate promise for coming together our accountability, relations, and synchrony with others is diminished. This can be regained, but it will take work.
  4. New Rituals. The remote work world also disbanded many of the ritualistic practices we had tied to shared physical interactions and space. For example, after-work drinks are different when you can’t co-locate. Zoom drinks are fine once in a while, but it doesn’t replace the many affordances we experience in meeting somewhere or travelling a place together. Coffee time is different (or non-existent).
  5. Beautiful Spaces. Whether working at home or in a work-specific space the role of aesthetics shouldn’t be discounted. Evidence is strong that workplaces, spaces, and organizations as a whole do better and promote well-being more when we think of them as beautiful.. Whether it is lighting, colour and spatial organization or its purpose, vision, and community — designing our spaces and organizations for beauty is a performance and well-being strategy.
  6. Love. Adam Kahane has written and spoken extensively on the need for love amidst conflict. Physicist and mindfulness teacher Arthur Zajonc speaks of how mindfulness and contemplative inquiry can foster a love-like connection to things. Plant medicine coach Geoff Wilson advocates we treat the things we value with love by falling in love with such things – whether people or the planet. Love is not often spoken out loud as a quality in organizational culture, yet its qualities permeate those organizations with great cultures.

Much of the design work associated with these involves some ‘soft’ skill appreciation. Concepts like beauty, love, sharing and caring are not ones that readily fit quantitative models. It requires some time, care, and attention – but it can be done.

Leading an organization into a place where well-being and care are part of what is done everyday. It’s an organization priority and it can be designed into your organization with a little of what’s been described above. The benefits and outcomes are tangible.

If you organization is looking to establish a culture of wellbeing let’s grab a coffee and talk about how I can help you. It can be done, by design.

Image credits: Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash and dylan nolte on Unsplash

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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