My Take: Culture in the Time of COVID

December 1st, 2020
Let’s talk about workplace culture in the time of COVID.

According to Peter Phelan of ValuesCulture, “Smart organizations will engage their teams in an inclusive structured process to map out how they need to evolve their culture for a brave new world.”

I couldn’t agree more. We will see an end to this pandemic, if recent news reports about the efficacy of the vaccine are any indication. It is coming soon. After “herd immunity” kicks in and we can all safely venture out into the world again, what will that world look like? What will the workplace look like? As we see light at the end of this coronavirus tunnel, that’s what’s been on my mind lately.

A wide swath of employees, and indeed entire companies, have been working at home since April. That sudden, seismic shift can’t be overstated. Companies with traditional norms about office face time being necessary for productivity were forced to abandon those long-held beliefs and quickly outfit their employees’ home offices, spare rooms, or basements with the technology necessary for them to do their jobs off-site. We became a nation of remote workers overnight.

The fact that companies kept chugging along and employees proved they could be just as productive, if not more so, at home was a wakeup call for many. And now, when companies might be planning to open up their offices when summer rolls around, the question becomes: if you can open your office, should you?

I just don’t see people willing to give up all of the positives of working at home for a return to five days a week in a cubicle. Especially millennials, who, according to survey after survey, are deeply invested in work-life balance and will quit rather than do without it. Those of us who follow workplace HR trends know that millennials are the least engaged workers and have the lowest rates of well-being because of a lack of work-life balance. Earlier in November, Gallup released a poll and found that all of that has changed, largely because of working at home.

The survey found that the largest swath of employees in the workplace today are finally happy and more engaged than ever. They can get their work done without fighting with a daily commute. They can finish their latest project, and throw in a load of laundry or start dinner. They can take their dog to the park at lunchtime. They can be home when their kids get home from school. Work and life are finally finding some balance in real, tangible ways.

According to Gallup, “The workplace suddenly offered all the flexibility and potential for work-life balance millennials ever wanted. In one fell swoop, business conformed itself to the millennial way.”

We’ll likely see a hybrid of remote and office work emerging. But, for all of the positives, more flexible work options come with a distinct set of challenges. For HR, protecting and evolving company culture is one of them.

If you haven’t focused much on company culture in the past, or if you’ve been putting it aside just to get through the pandemic, now’s the time to bring it back to the table. It’s a matter of taking a look at the hallmarks of your company culture before, during, and after the pandemic. What’s important to your company? Not just your mission, but what is your zeitgeist? What makes you, you? What is your employer brand? Why do your employees value working for you? What do people love about your company?

If it’s relationship-building and working together, the challenge is how to keep it alive in a remote environment. Collaboration software like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are becoming regular tools of any trade.

Regular communication is necessary now, not only between colleagues, but from the top down. One company I know of has a regular Friday email newsletter compiled by the president, lauding accomplishments, giving kudos, and passing along employee news. It’s a great way to keep everyone thinking about each other, highlighting what colleagues in different departments are doing, letting people know the company is doing just fine during this uncertain time, and making everyone feel like a unit, even though they haven’t seen one another in months.

It’s a small thing that goes a long way toward reminding people what their company culture is all about.

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