COVID and Company Culture: Change or Start Over?

COVID and Corporate Culture

As we look forward to putting 2020 behind us and wonder what’s next, many organizations are giving renewed consideration to company culture. Operational changes born of necessity were the hallmark of this year, with organizations making rapid adjustments to a remote workforce and conducting business in a virtual environment. For many, those swings at the series of curveballs thrown at us in this year left little time or bandwidth to devote to company culture.

We still don’t know what’s ahead, but it appears that the changes brought on by the pandemic will not magically revert on January 1st. So ask this question: If you had had a crystal ball at the end of 2019 and knew what was coming, what steps would you have taken to preserve or enhance your company culture? Have you done those things yet? If not, here’s your next best opportunity.

The pandemic has robbed us of so many traditional means of promoting culture, from simple ‘drive-by’ management visits to social and team-building activities. We used to talk about having people in the right seats on the bus, but now everyone’s in his or her own car instead, and that makes it a real challenge to foster a sense of common mission.

So does the current climate call for different ways of maintaining your culture … or does it call for a new culture?

First, let’s understand what culture is, and what it isn’t. The free snacks in the break room, the ping-pong table, the social events? Those aren’t your culture. They’re perks that may or may not reflect your culture accurately. Culture itself is the shared set of values, goals and attitudes that define your organization, as well as the practices that reflect those values if you’re doing things right.

And it’s important: One in five workers have left a position over the last five years because they felt the culture was lacking. We all know it’s a lot less costly to keep employees than to train new ones. More to the point, your paying customers will inevitably sense from your team members when things aren’t right, and that goes straight to the top line. So it behooves us to pay attention to culture, especially in these changed times.

What is it that workers want from their leadership right now? An MIT Sloan School of Management study analyzed 1.4 million employee reviews shared on Glassdoor between April and August to find out. Employees rating their company culture highly singled out “top team communication” and “honesty of leaders” as the top two drivers of satisfaction.

Communication certainly has become more difficult in the lockdown, but honesty (and right behind it in the survey, transparency) should not be harder to achieve. As we noted in a recent post, employees need channels to give and receive feedback, and they deserve to know the bigger picture of what’s going on to the greatest degree possible. Otherwise fear and rumors fill the vacuum of silence from the top.

But all the honesty in the world is worth little if it’s not communicated in a timely and thorough fashion. In pre-pandemic times you could perhaps assume that any significant company news would travel through the organization organically, like so-called tribal wisdom. That communication requires a more detailed plan now, and if that’s not part of your SOP, then perhaps it is time for a culture change.

“No one cares what you know until they know you care,” goes the saying, and that idea should inform team communications. Your employees need your reassurance and support, your feedback and the chance to offer theirs.

And yes, any perks you can offer to support that concept will be welcome. You may not be able to match Google and offer each team member a $1,000 allowance to cover work-from-home equipment and expenses, but perhaps you could take a page from NVIDIA and move employee reviews forward a few months so more people can qualify for raises sooner. That’s more than a perk; it’s a perk that clearly says what your culture is about.

If you’re still not convinced of the need for transparent communication, consider this: a separate survey from MIT Sloan found that employers were the most trusted source of information on COVID-19, ahead of government officials, news outlets or social media.

It continues to appear that we’re in this for the longer haul, and your team is counting on you. Whether that means adjustments to your current culture or starting over completely, communication and transparency should be the cornerstones.

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