How COVID-19 has impacted organisational culture

By Robert Half on 8 June 2020

Organisational culture is an important part of why employees choose to work for a company – and what keeps them there for the long-term too. More specifically, the culture of an organisation is exactly what makes employees feel as though they ‘fit’ within a workplace, which can affect happiness, motivation and ultimately, productivity.

The challenge is, as workforces continue to work from home, at least part-time, on a mass scale, many of the variables that make up corporate culture are not within the control of companies in the same way and to the same degree as they used to be. Consequently, it’s important for business leaders to focus on how COVID-19 is impacting working experiences and what they can do to continue to ensure a positive organisational culture for their staff.

The importance of thinking ahead

While there remains a certain degree of uncertainty associated with the current pandemic cycle, companies could take this opportunity to embrace a forward-thinking approach to how they will maintain their organisational culture ongoing. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, employee expectations around flexibility, in particular, have changed, with many calling for leaders to redefine their approach to culture management.

Here are some of the impacts that changes to our working practices are having on organisational culture and how they can be tackled.

Get the team together

Any team members working from home are likely to miss the presence and personalities of their colleagues, as well as the ambient dialogue that often comes with physically being in the same room as your workmates. At the same time, the inability to communicate with team members on an ad hoc basis can leave employees feeling siloed in their work, even if they are working on the same project or towards shared goals.

To combat feelings of isolation and encourage a sense of inclusion, it can be important for companies to leverage technology with the aim of simulating physical team environments and activities as far as possible. For example, this might mean promoting regular visual interactions through video conferencing tools, and actively managing and organising projects cohesively using collaboration platforms.

Rolling out a rotating (semi-)remote working buddy program could be another way to maintain strong relationships between team members in the current situation. Pairing up employees who share similar (or even different roles) will provide an alternative ‘go to’ communication channel which can build alignment, trust, enable problems to be solved quicker and even lead to upskilling.

Reiterate your company values

Remote working has been the norm for a while and we’re likely to experience a staggered approach to returning to the office over the coming weeks or months. Hence there’s potential for some employees to lose their connection with their company’s core values.

To avoid this scenario, there are various ways that employees can be positively reminded about what it means to work for the organisation, such as through virtual awards gatherings, ‘remote’ company town halls, online events and social responsibility initiatives, as examples. COVID-19 has necessitated changes in how many of these tactics are delivered, most certainly. But in these uncertain and unusual times, it remains important to reiterate your company values.

Additionally, business leaders must consider how their values translate to the circumstances at hand and, not only communicate them effectively, but exercise them effectively too. Further to the examples noted above, if your company values openness and flexibility, it’s important to leverage available channels of communication such as company intranet, emails and virtual meetings to update remote employees on business impacts, what changes might take place now and in the future and what steps the business will take to support employees facing individual challenges.

Be a positive, empathetic and responsive leader

Lower employee engagement and satisfaction is another organisational challenge that companies might be dealing with today. Individually and collectively, many of us are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress – both in our personal and professional lives - so finding ways to drive employee engagement and instil a sense of purpose in staff is a priority for many employers.

Managers dealing with a combination of remote and onsite workers should leverage digital communication tools, so everyone continues to be engaged in team activities and goals – wherever they are. Some ideas might include reinforcing team goals, recognising achievements and celebrating key milestones virtually, as well as scheduling one-on-one discussions about performance improvement and career growth.

It will likely also be necessary for managers to lead their teams by example, demonstrating a range of soft skills which are vital to creating a positive, inclusive and productive working environment. Specifically, leaders should show empathy towards individual circumstances and issues, be vigilant and responsive in helping staff solve problems and challenges and maintain a positive mindset – all of which can potentially have a ‘top-down’ effect.

During this time of crisis, no amount of communication is too much.

Understand what it means to be flexible for everyone

If there’s one thing that COVID-19 working conditions has shown us, it’s that the standard nine-to-five working day has become more difficult to apply universally among staff (and increasingly unnecessary with available technology).

While many professionals today are juggling work with home-schooling arrangements and changes to childcare hours, in the longer term, some workers might be left feeling enlightened by the benefits that ditching the daily commute could bring to their work-life balance.

Companies that support flexible working practices and telecommuting to suit individual needs are likely to be in the spotlight long after the immediate impacts of COVID-19 are over – with the potential to attract and retain the most talented workers.

To prepare for this potential cultural shift on a large scale, companies should develop clear policies as well as invest in technology and training at all levels of the corporate hierarchy to ensure productivity and effective working practices are maintained.

The restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have quickly shifted the goal posts for companies that take their organisational culture seriously. As a manager, perhaps ask yourself: “What do I want to be remembered for coming out of this crisis?” Remember, if you're the leader, you set the tone. By adapting to change now, companies could not only deliver more positive working experiences today, but also be better equipped for tomorrow’s future world of work.

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