How can you maintain a company culture when it feels like the company is disconnected?
It’s a challenge for HR leaders and executives around the world since the pandemic changed everything – especially how and where we work.
Many leaders feel like their companies lost some identity when they dropped social and professional interactions. Some companies still don’t have all employees on-site – and never will. Companies shrank, while others expanded.
And many realized the culture isn’t the same when the crowd isn’t the same. Our founder at SuccessFuel, the parent company of HRMorning, Ed Satell has often said, “Change the people, change the company.” It’s no more true than now.
Not surprisingly, a year after the pandemic started, many companies find it difficult to build, maintain or rebuild their cultures. In fact, more than 25% of employees think workplace culture is worse now, a Stoneside survey found.
Fortunately, HR leaders can work with employees to regain company culture – or even create a new one more fitting to the new working norms.
Here are seven ideas to try.
Recognize the new norms
At most companies, the work norms changed as employees transitioned to remote, hybrid and/or socially distanced work. If people don’t understand the emerging norms and values – whether they’re formal or organic changes – they can’t adapt to the culture.
Management researchers Erin Makarius and Barbara Larson suggest a planned approach to help everyone learn what’s new, clarify assumptions and dispel rumors. For example, IBM created a “work from home pledge” that specified emerging norms such as how to communicate and treat each other well while everyone was working remotely.
Culture tip: Host town halls where employees can join in virtually or on-site. Update them on new policies and practices. Talk about emerging norms and find out if those are things they like. Also, survey employees to find out if they recognize, embrace and celebrate shared values. If employees aren’t happy with cultural shifts, make changes.
Many employees – and entire workforces – will never set foot back in the office again. As organizations become exclusively or partly remote, maintaining culture might take extra efforts.
“It used to be ‘off-sites’ to build teams,” Rowley says. “Now we need to do the absolute opposite. Do ‘on-sites.'”
It’ll be increasingly important to bring teams together for professional and social reasons.
Culture tip: Rowley suggests you plan regular group events in your office space or at a conference center where people can be face-to-face safely and comfortably.
Strike the right balance
You can teach and preach culture all you want. But people working together toward goals, guided by corporate and personal values, will be your culture in action.
So in a hybrid work environment, it’s important to make sure people are together at the most opportune times. They can work distanced at other times.
Culture tip: Share guidelines on how to meet. For instance, encourage leaders and employees to get together to brainstorm and be creative, which experts say is better done in groups. Remind leaders to give sensitive feedback face-to-face. But everyone might want to share data and information online or during virtual meetings.
More than 55% of employees say the pandemic strained their relationships with colleagues, the Stoneside study found. They don’t talk and laugh with co-workers – and it’s taken a toll on relationships. Plus, they’ve missed out on daily interactions that often help alleviate the unprecedented stress of this past year.
The depth of employee relationships affects company culture. When employees interact and socialize with colleagues they’re almost always more engaged with their work.
Culture tip: If you haven’t already started to reintroduce the social side of work, now might be a good time. The best bet is to host events that employees can participate in virtually or in-person to meet everyone’s COVID comfort level. For instance, host a coffee chat where employees can join in socially distanced on-site or virtually from where they’re comfortable.
Expand your reach
Many companies aren’t a reflection of what they were before the pandemic. Their workforce changed. And it’s likely their company culture needs to reflect that.
Rowley says nearly 40% of workers participate in the gig economy in some form. So many organizations have “talent clouds” – a mix of employees, freelancers and contractors, some of whom weave in and out of the company.
Culture tip: “Now employers want to consider all of these people as part of the company culture,” Rowley suggests. Ask everyone for opinions on how to embrace and cultivate the company culture.
Focus on team culture
Harvard Business School researchers Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall found employees often care more about their team than their company.
This is particularly important to overall company culture because many people migrate from team to team. One good culture can spread to the next. And those good, team cultures can potentially mitigate negative cultures that might have developed in the past year.
Culture tip: The researchers suggested groups create team charters when they come together. It’s a roadmap and agreement for how they’ll schedule and conduct meetings, distribute the workload, make decisions, give feedback and respectfully interact. They essentially build their team culture from the ground up.
Be ready to start over
Now that everything has changed, be prepared – or prepare colleagues and employees – for a new view on company culure.
“Rearticulate the culture of the company,” says Rowley, “and then you might need to devise a new strategy for it.”
Remember, people changed: They have different comfort levels now. Policies changed: They likely reflect responses to the pandemic. Processes changed: They might have sped up, slowed down, stopped or turned upside down to meet vastly changing demands.
Culture tip: Perhaps the most important thing about company culture is it can – and maybe should – be fluid. Let employees be part of recognizing needs for change and adapting to the times.