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For Corporate Culture, "Back to Normal" Would Miss the Mark: My 2020 Takeaways

We’re all participants in many different systems: households, families, racial and ethnic and religious communities, government and politics, healthcare, and for many of us, professional organizations – employers and otherwise. In a post earlier this year I said that employers working to support employees need to take an individual approach to employee needs. I also said that a systems approach wouldn’t cut it. I still feel that way, but that doesn’t mean we get to ignore systemic problems. This year has exposed issues and driven change in so many contexts; corporate culture evolution is just one of them. But leaders in the professional world need to recognize these mandates and own our responsibility for embracing changes for the better moving forward.

2020 was a shock to many systems we depend on.
Companies, including Calico, shouldn’t forget the lessons we’ve learned.

This is not just about the novel coronavirus pandemic. Every system we participate in has been affected in 2020. Some have broken. Some have evolved. Some have evaporated. Some are being torn down in order to be rebuilt. Some are being dismantled too slowly, too late. They’re all changed and changing, and who knows what the world will look like when (if?) that rate of change slows back down. I’m choosing to be hopeful, but I am living an immensely privileged version of this 2020 story, and I know it. Hope may be a choice, but it is always a privilege.

Calico has been lucky this year, too. We were already geodiverse, set up for remote work with teams across 4 time zones. We operate in a relatively stable industry. We are a close-knit group who’s used to sharing more than just work, and we know how to back each other up. I am proud of us. We’ve listened; we’ve empathized; we’ve asked if and how we can help. We’ve held space. We’ve shared anger and frustration and fear and vulnerability. We’ve tapped out; we’ve adjusted expectations. We’ve also talked about the future of the company, goals, needs, and growth. All in all, we’ve adapted a lot and we’ve done a reasonable job acknowledging both today and tomorrow. That feels like a best case scenario.

In a time when saying “I’m okay” is generally understood to mean “I’m relatively great and aware of my fortune,” all kinds of truths are being exposed. Some of those are specific to our systems of employee-employer engagement and some are about broader corporate culture. We (particularly leaders) get to acknowledge and learn from these truths or stick our heads in the sand and wait until things “go back to normal,” which of course is not going to happen. For better and worse, 2020 exposed brokenness, catalyzed a lot of rapid adaptation and drove system-level changes. I’m hopeful we’ll retain the good stuff we’ve learned this year.

My macro-level takeaways from 2020

  1. Human systems need slack, too. Operating at or near max capacity may be “optimized” and “efficient,” but there’s no room there for absorbing stress or change. At Calico we’ve hired capacity in advance of growth for years, but I will forevermore also talk about having capacity for catastrophe. We need to normalize maintaining buffers by discussing it explicitly, and we have to work to ensure that our people individually and collectively operate with slack in their systems.

  2. Individualizing a policy is always progress. Whether its asynchronous communications, flexibility about schedules, working-from-anywhere, or any number of other humanity-driven adaptations to more rigid processes or policies – all of it is good. There are no downsides to evolving operations in a direction that gives people more autonomy, more balance, and more ability to operate in the ways that are best for them. There can be other needs that arise as a result, but they’re always worth navigating.

  3. If #2 isn’t working, it’s a trust issue. If empowering staff to own what works for them within the constraints and expectations of their roles doesn’t work, that’s not a policy or process issue. Root problems could be performance or communication or expectation issues, but solutions will be to do whatever it takes to build or rebuild trust. Or determine that that’s not possible. Compensating for or masking trust issues with processes is insidious.

None of these are particularly revolutionary, but 2020 has made it clear to me that they’re not optional, either. These are not cultural nice-to-haves or ideals. We’ve had significant, systemic issues we need to address, and these perspectives can drive and sustain real change. I’m still working through how to operationalize and optimize what each means for Calico and the work we need to do on our system, but I’ll be holding us all accountable for acting on the above from here on out. Starting with me.

Calico CEO Colleen Morris

About the author...

Colleen Morris is Calico Energy’s President and CEO. With deep experience in product management and strategic visioning, she’s able to effectively lead Calico’s consultants and technologists as they build useful, relevant solutions for utility and market customers. To find about more about Colleen, read her bio.

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