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Now that our whole lives are spent in front of a screen, it’s time to step back and see what’s left. Most business leaders have held onto culture being the last thing they want to give over to digital. (Out of my cold. Dead. Hands.)
But is there such a thing as “digital culture”? Gina DeLapa, the owner of Thriving Cultures weighs in.
What is a digital culture?
Gina says that, “culture starts with everyone understanding what business we are in.” It’s not something that you can just throw some happy hours at and magically change. It starts with a shared understanding of what we are all doing together.
Life in the digital world is often convenient, but that doesn’t make it easy. Gina says it takes a lot of resourcefulness and self-discipline. So, we shouldn’t assume that after a year, everyone has it figured out.
Back to the office
There’s a lot of folks eager to get back to office, because “that’s where we left the culture”. But that misses everything we’ve learned through the pandemic. We’ve been building culture and the shift to digital has revealed what was or was not there.
There’s a lot we need to take away from our time. Gina says, “You’re still going to need to check in with people. Because one good thing this pandemic has done, I think, is raised the bar on our level of empathy. That should not go away. That should be something we absolutely keep going forward because that would be a huge opportunity lost if we dropped that element.”
Many managers have used the 1:1 time for checking in and building empathy, but Gina says we should also consider group checkins. Some people might be more comfortable sharing things in a group and getting the support of others instead of just the boss.
Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today our guest is Gina DeLapa. Gina is the owner of Thriving Cultures. Hi, Gina. How are you today?
Hi, Neil. Excellent. How’s life in Indy?
Indy is good. We are emerging from some snow. So, it’s been warm lately. We had like a foot of snow on the ground. And you know I’m from the Midwest, because as soon as you ask me how I’m doing, I talk about the weather. That’s what we do.
Well, yeah, I’m from Michigan. So, we talk about what’s knee-high by July.
Yeah, there you go. But you’re not in Michigan anymore, right? You’re out in California.
Not yet. Exactly. I’m in San Diego and I’m fortunate to have family nearby and I went to grad school out here. So, I’ve got some nice ties and am fortunate to call San Diego home.
Yeah. Where you never have to talk about the weather because it’s always sunny and nice, right?
No not really. Your standards change once you live here a while. 60 degrees is freezing.
Oh, my goodness. I feel so sorry for you.
I know, I know.
Anyway, let’s see. Let’s do our captcha question to determine if you are a real human. So, your question today to start off is, how would you describe your work, what you do, to a child?
I get to encourage people all day long, so they feel super connected to their work. And so, they, you know how when you wake up in the morning and you’re really excited to be somewhere? Well, that’s what I help people do with their work. Because we have to work, but the time flies by when you’re involved in it and excited about it and you know that it matters.
That’s good. I like that. I think kids understand that element of exciting and being able to do that. So, that’s a cool thing.
I’ve tried so many times to explain to my kids what I do, they still don’t get it. They don’t have a clue. Is that I write things, I talk to people, we talk about the future? They’re like, okay.
Like whatever you say, dad, just whatever.
Whatever goes through. So, Gina, tell us a little bit about you, your company. You’ve explained your work to a child, and it makes sense to all of us too. But give us a little bit more detail about what you do.
Okay, all right. Well, employee engagement is really everything to an organization. If you want your business to thrive, not only today, but 5 years, 10 years, you know, a generation from now, you’ve got to get people invested in their work. And that means invested with their heads and their hearts. The career counselor in me knows that work is extremely important, both to our spiritual well-being, because it’s where we connect to our purpose, it’s where we spend the bulk of our waking time. So, I work with organizations to really light that fire with their employees and create a meaningful difference. I think companies have a supreme opportunity to affect the culture in positive ways, again, largely because we spend so much time at work and everyone wants their work to be meaningful. What do you say?
So, let me ask you a question about culture. I’ve had this discussion with other guests before. Do you feel like culture is something you can work on? Or is culture just something that emerges based on other things you’re working on? Like, can you tell people I’m actually going to go in and mess with your culture? Are you messing with other things that impact the culture? How do you define that?
Okay, yeah. I think cultural change has to be from the inside out. It’s not, ‘we’re going to have more bring your pet to work days’ or more, ‘pajama days’, or whatever. It has to start with, ‘Let’s first make sure that we’re all on the same page with what business we’re in’. I mean, let’s start with the basics. Nike, for example, is not in the shoe business. They’re in the business of inspiring the athlete in all of us. I think that’s their stated mission. And look, how much harder is it to compete with someone like that. You’re an inspiration business. But you’ve got to get clear with your team, ‘What business are we in? Who’s responsible for what?’
And an exercise that I take companies through is, send a private email to each of your employees or your management team, some finite group, and ask them, ‘What business are we in? What do you see as your role toward that purpose? And what things might you want to be responsible for?’ And you’re going to be very surprised at the gaps and the overlap and the confusion that simple exercise brings forth. So, start with clarity, and then from there you can move on to strengthening leadership which is really at the heart of culture and cultural change.
Yeah. I like that question, ‘What are you in the business of doing?’ I think that’s unclear, I would say, to the majority of people who are in the working world. I think most people don’t know. I think there are even very few people who even know how their companies make money, even the business model behind that, which is another deep thing. But to understand that is really important to be able to create a great team. So, you’ve been in this world of helping organizations improve their culture for a long time. This has been something you’ve been doing for many years. We’re in 2021 talking now, which means we’re still kind of emerging from this global pandemic, trying to get over this. What has changed in your world, in terms of how you consult, how you interact with companies? What do you see is different?
Well, what I see different in the companies that I work with is, the pandemic clearly changed all of us individually, it changed everything and turned everything upside down. But from a cultural standpoint, I don’t know that the pandemic changed things as much as it revealed them. And intensified them. I once heard someone use the phrase ‘karmic accelerator’, which is a whole other story. I don’t know from karma, but the point is, it accelerated. So, if you had a culture of micromanagement, now you’ve probably got a culture of paranoia. If you had a culture of caring and trust, you probably found new ways to continue that caring and find new ways to care. And clearly, the pandemic has called for that. If you had entitled employees before the pandemic, now you’ve got insufferable people. You know what I’m saying. It turns the volume up and I think, reveal maybe, some of the weaknesses of, ‘Oh, I guess I thought I trusted my team, but maybe I don’t. Maybe I need to change some things.’
Yeah. I haven’t really heard it in those terms before, especially when talking about the micromanagement to the paranoia, because that’s definitely there. Because it’s paranoia on all sides. If we thought, okay, you got to get this work done. The leader is there to actually manage all the tasks and make sure you get all your work done, then that’s going to create paranoia for both that person who was in that role, and the person who they’re reporting to, and all that just creates this fear and stress. And you see that in a lot of people and how they’re responding.
Yeah, you do. And I think fear, as you said, fear is really at the heart of a lot of what’s wrong with cultures, a lot of drama, a lot of disengagement. But I think communication doesn’t have to be fear-based. It doesn’t have to be this endless loop of paranoia and fear on the other side. I think communication from a caring place can, I don’t say be a cure-all, but it can be a huge part of the solution going forward.
Have you seen any companies that have been able to overcome something as big as, if they really did have a fear-based culture before the pandemic, going to digital? I don’t really see a company like that recovering well or making that big transition. I’ve seen a lot of companies who start, like you said, if they start from a caring atmosphere, they figure out how to do that in a digital space. But I feel, like you said, digital just reveals so much that it’s hard to really change that mindset from the beginning. Have you noticed that?
Unfortunately, no. I really haven’t. I haven’t seen any of this light bulb moment where people go from uncaring and paranoid to embracing and all of that. What I have seen though is, within those cultures with those negative tendencies, there are pockets of hope, where a team within that larger organization will take up the torch, so to speak, and be caring towards their own team and say, ‘Okay, well, we can’t maybe change the overall culture overnight. But we can change us.’ We can, I don’t say work smarter, that never works. But we can document our successes. And so, there are things. And I know managers in that position who are very frustrated with how things are going above them, but very much in control in a great way of how things are going with their own team. So, start at the smallest level possible. Change yourself, I mean, and let it radiate out.
Yeah, that’s tough, but that’s the right place. If I throw the word ‘digital culture’ in front of you, does that mean anything? For you, how would you just run with that? What does that mean?
Well, I think I’ve been living in a digital culture for so long that I don’t even really think about that term. But I think work gets done online with people all over the world, people you might never meet face to face and you might even not even hear their voice that often. But you create, you find ways to share ideas. And you know, is brainstorming the same as it would be face to face? No. But with a digital workplace comes tremendous flexibility and autonomy which is something high performers have been wanting forever. And so, the pandemic I think, has shown that, yes, we can work professionally in a digital environment. But it does take enormous resourcefulness, and what’s the word, I guess, self-discipline. And that’s a muscle that’s developed over time. When I started out working primarily in that manner, I was not good at it. I didn’t like all the alone time. But now I’m much better able to manage it and make it work for me. What about you? I want to hear your definition because this is something that you live and breathe all the time as well.
Yeah, I’m trying to think about that. If somebody says, ‘Man, we have a great digital culture, as opposed to just having a culture’, what is the difference that they mean by that? I feel like that just means that their culture is able to transcend the physical. One of the things that I’m hearing a lot is people saying, ‘Man, we have got to get back to the office. We have got to get back to where our culture was great. Our culture is suffering because we’re not in the office. We have got to get back there.’ And I understand that. I understand the sentiment behind it because there is something magical that happens when humans are just in place. And that’s brilliant. We should be able to leverage that. We shouldn’t ignore that. At the same time, I do feel like a lot of companies just allowed culture to happen and didn’t necessarily put any effort into it. And it just occurred in the office. And now, they’re still not putting any effort into it and it’s not occurring in a digital space. So, they feel like, ‘Okay, the way we’re going to solve that is to get back in the office’. Maybe, but maybe not. Right?
Right. I mean to me, when I hear someone say, ‘We can get it back to the way it was’. You hear that sometimes, in a workplace or a friendship, well, maybe the point was, the way it was, isn’t working, or is no longer applicable. So yeah, there’s absolutely a place for ‘in-person communication’ and some ‘office time’, because we’re social creatures. So, we need some of that to a degree. But you used the phrase earlier, ‘We have a great digital culture’. I think companies that have a great digital culture probably think of it more just in terms of a great culture that happens to be digital. The digital is just part of the DNA.
Right. I’ve talked to a few companies who started off fully distributed, fully remote. And they would never say they had a great digital culture. They would just say, man, our culture is awesome. We love each other, we support each other, we’re doing great, everything’s there. So, I think the people who struggle with it are those who defined culture physically before and now are having to find ways to replicate that or fill in gaps that weren’t there or try to learn new ways. So really, I’ve never heard somebody say that. I’ve never heard somebody say, ‘I have a great digital culture’. This just doesn’t make sense, or they haven’t figured out.
Right. Well, it has been a huge adjustment, there’s no question. In fact, even in the beginning, I remember thinking, I liked this ‘working from home’ business a lot more when it was my idea. Now that it isn’t, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s an emotional shift’. And so, yes, it does take time. But you know, we’re coming up on a year now. So, we really can’t quite use that excuse in the same way. But I definitely agree with you, Neil, that a great culture can absolutely exist digitally. And my guess is that the people in those types of cultures wouldn’t trade it.
Right. And I think my fear is that as we do start to move back into offices, a lot of leaders will just think, ‘Okay, Phew! Finally. Alright. Now, I don’t have to worry about the culture anymore because it’s going to happen here’. But they still want to say, ‘We want to do this hybrid model’. We hear people talking about hybrid all the time and I feel like what they mean by that is we’ll just figure it out whenever it comes. Like we’re going to still let people maybe not come in every once in a while, but we’re not going to change anything from what we thought we were doing before, in terms of really saying, ‘Let’s really do this right. And say, yeah, culture is more than just being together and going out after work for drinks.’
Totally. I think culture in this kind of new era going forward is about shared mission, shared purpose, how we care about each other. But then all those things can absolutely be done from afar. Spare me the leader who thinks culture is, ‘we’re going to have a mandatory happy hour’, or, you know, what I’m saying, like forced togetherness. That’s not where culture is. And if you’ve got a culture that’s not healthy, bringing everyone back into the office is not going to fix that. You mentioned a point earlier about leaders are going to just let their guard down when everyone comes back and say, ‘Phew! That’s over.’ No. You’re still going to need to check in with people. Because one good thing this pandemic has done, I think, is raised the bar on our level of empathy, I hope. That should not go away. That should be something we absolutely keep going forward because that would be a huge opportunity lost if we dropped that element.
Yeah. And that’s one of the most fascinating parts of the whole experiment we’ve been in, is that I feel like whenever everyone went home, back in March or so, the worry was, ‘Will we be able to get work done?’ And that was answered pretty quickly, ‘Yeah, it’s fine. Work got done’. And the leaders, managers, or whatever, traditionally, they thought their job was to make sure that work got done. And now they realize they really didn’t need to be doing that because it was going to happen anyway. People were going to do that. And so, that role shifted to, now you actually need to take care of your people and make sure that mentally they’re doing healthy, physically they’re doing healthy, that they’re socially getting some interaction that’s there. And I think that that’s where leaders need to go to in a digital future. It’s not so much thinking about work management, I mean, that needs to be there to some extent in creating those systems. But leaders in the future are going to be there to take care of the humans on their team and make sure that they’re fine.
Absolutely right. It’s more of almost a coaching model than a managing model. And I’ve never liked the term, you hear people say, ‘managing people’. Well, that just reduces human beings, flesh-and-blood human beings, to pawns or objects. You might manage a team because there are dynamics on a team that need to be managed and workloads. But you’re right. There has been a huge shift in the role of the leader. And with that is a whole new skill set, a whole new capacity that not everyone has. Can it be acquired? I think so. I think in my mind, if you’re caring and you’re competent, you’re going to be fine. Those are qualities to be developed over time. And I think they can be, with an openness to it. But you’re right, that the role of the leader, the manager, has shifted quite dramatically.
Yeah. Well, I know one of the things that you care a lot about is people’s well-being and their health that are on the team. So, tell us a bit more about what, especially in the midst of doing this ‘work from anywhere’ distributed team model, what should digital team leaders be doing differently to make sure that people are staying healthy? And what does healthy mean in those terms? How has that term broadened over the years?
Okay. Well, I think health and well-being has to encompass physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. And it doesn’t mean you’ve got to become somebody psychologist. But as a leader in this digital age, you definitely have to be more proactive, and more intentional, and unapologetic about making that a focus. So, if you’re having a team meeting, you need to let people know, ‘I’m going to be checking in with you, both individually and as a group here. And that’s not extrinsic to the meeting. It’s a core part of it’. Because if you don’t get that specific, here’s what happens, Neil. People feel like, well, I don’t want to bring up my vulnerabilities because it’s going to be a waste of the group’s time. I think we need to get past that.
So, I would say be much more proactive. Recognize that team members aren’t going to reveal things necessarily in a group setting that they might one-on-one. So, you need both. Ask specific questions like, what information if you had on a consistent basis would help you get your work done? What other tools do you need from me? What other supports do you need from me right now? What else would be helpful for me to know about you? And out it’s going to come. People are going to talk about, ‘they’re caring for a sick loved one, or they’re dealing with kids and school issues, or something’. You need to get to know the whole person, when you work, when you’re managing a team, not just their job description.
So, when I think about caring for people on your team, checking in with them, I almost exclusively think about one-on-ones, like just individually. So, give me some situations where it’s actually maybe better for small groups to be talking about that are on a team. What are some situations where people would be more willing, or it’d be more effective, to talk about that in groups?
Well, I think when you’re talking about shared vulnerability, that might be easier in a small group setting. And here’s a quick way, Neil, that small groups can get the juices flowing, because it’s awkward to just raise your hand and talk about something that might be a little bit revealing. Turn to one person, and again you can do this on Zoom, and talk for 60 seconds back and forth about what’s been most challenging this week, or whatever the question is. Discuss and debrief. So, you discuss in small groups like two people, come back as a large group, and then you share. But vulnerability in a one-on-one might be super awkward for some people. Whereas if I speak up and say, ‘Try as I might, some days, I just have a hard time separating work from home’. And you’re going to hear, ‘Yeah, I’m in that same boat’. And then the conversation flows and it’s safe now. Another thing leaders’ can do, is they can model the degree of vulnerability that they want from their team. So yeah, it’s not spilling your guts, but it’s sharing some of the struggles and normalizing those, because we’re all human and we all have them.
Yeah. And I think that’s been a good byproduct in many cases from the pandemic, is that we have been able to see each other and it’s just normal to talk about, ‘How are you doing? What is going on in your world?’ You now know a lot about people’s family, who’s living with them in their house. Those issues are less taboo. Obviously, we need to be concerned about people for whom that still is sensitive, and they still aren’t quite ready to share all that. But for those who are, I feel like this last year has presented a chance for people to get to know each other on a much deeper basis, which can only be positive and can really help out to build the empathy we’re talking about.
Right. And for example, if, say you’ve got a sick family member, or you’re experiencing grief in some manner, I may not be able to address that specifically. But maybe I come to you and say, “Neil, I’d like to take this part of a project off your plate. Would that be helpful?” You see what I’m saying. You might not sit down and discuss intimate details of their personal life, but “How can I help you with this project? How can I lighten your load at work?” And maybe even have some specific suggestions so that person is not burdened with having to come up with the ideas. But there are ways that you can be helpful, even when you’re not addressing the specific underlying problem.
Yeah. Gina, this has been great to chat. Unfortunately, we’re reaching the end of our time. There’s so much more we could go into. So, tell us a little bit about where people can go to find more about your work and to hear what you do.
Sure. ginadelapa.com. So, g-i-n-a, d as in David, e-l-a-p-a, ginadelapa.com. You can sign up for blog updates. There’s a lot of good content on there if you’re looking to build company culture or just your own leadership skills. And I think leadership is something we all need to/get to work on. So, I’m on a mission to inspire leadership at every level. And you’ll find a lot of info on my site. I’m also on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook. But yeah, go to my site, ginadelapa.com. That should hook you up with everything you need.
Excellent. Well, we will put all those in the show notes. It’s been great to get to know you and introduce you to our audience. We look forward to more conversations.
Me as well. Thank you, Neil.
Most executives know employee engagement could improve, and if it did, their company would experience much more productivity with far less friction. Yet improving employee engagement requires an in-depth look at the company’s culture—something most executives don’t have time for.
Gina DeLapa gives you a framework to transform your culture so that drama disappears, engagement increases, and company morale becomes a competitive advantage. For more about this topic, please check out her recent post What Every CEO Needs to Understand About Company Culture: