Building Culture Virtually – Sustaining company culture in a post-COVID world

building a better employee experience

COVID-19 has changed how we work in many ways, most of them practical – from shift to working from home to safe-distancing requirements and even the near-complete shutdown of industries such as tourism. Much of the focus has been on the individual employee experience – how employees can perform their jobs from remote locations, how remote working affects collaboration and how to maintain productivity.

As remote working, social distancing and workplace transformation continue, companies are starting to look at broader organizational issues regarding digitalization, the future of work, culture and business strategy.

Corporate culture – what leaders and employees say and do that is unique to the company – is critical in how employees deliver on the business strategy. Traditionally, in-person shared experiences have been essential for creating, sustaining and changing that culture. Before COVID-19, 71% of company leaders said they had culture on their agendas. Managing culture under normal conditions was already challenging. Leaders are often unaware of how corporate culture develops across the business and how it may affect employees. We know that employees are 8 times 2 more likely to work for a company they trust to provide them a career (79% vs 10%) and 4 times more 3 likely to work for a company whose culture is support of employee career changes (74%-14%)4 .

Concerns about culture have increased under COVID-19. Companies are trying to figure out how to retain their unique cultures – often a selling point of the employee value proposition – since these are harder to see and feel when employees are not working together on-site and in person.

Typically, companies spend significant time and money on communications, branded merchandise and events to build a shared sense of purpose and corporate identity. Linked to a company’s structure, values and strategies, the established culture may align with various archetypes, such as paternalistic (formal hierarchies), entrepreneurial (collaborative and agile), conservative (process-driven) and competitive (adversarial and siloed). Both leaders and employees need to learn to build on the strengths and nuances of the existing culture to bring out the best in the organization.

Situational Factors Impacting Culture

Typically, employees learn about the company culture and their “fit” based on what people say and do in the office. So what is the impact of organizational culture on common employee behaviors and how work gets done when there are fewer collective in-person experiences?

1) Communications and interactions are more scheduled, formal and distanced:

  • Employees need to understand the corporate vision for remote working, as there are no physical cues in the workplace. At the same time, they will need to align their expectations and behaviors with both personal and corporate goals.
  • Leadership’s messaging may be inconsistent. Are leaders reminding employees why the company exists, what makes it unique and how they contribute to its culture?
  • Networking is constrained, making it more challenging to learn about the culture and establish partnerships and relationships. Communication must be deliberate, with a reason for the connection.

2) Collaboration and consensus-building have fewer informal “aha” moments:

  • It takes a group of people to come up with new ideas and to debate and test them. Under remote working, this “bouncing-off” of ideas must take place in more formal communication channels. New ideas and products often result from spontaneous interactions in an office setting where the efforts of other employees are more visible.
  • Collaboration fatigue sets in because of the many virtual meetings involved in developing and implementing ideas cooperatively. There is little opportunity for spontaneous meetings or events when working remotely.
  • Recognition of employee efforts will be less visible to other team members and the wider organization, which could have a dampening effect on collaboration.

3) Leaders struggle with continuing to build safety within and between teams to allow vulnerability and change to occur:

  • Over remote communication channels, it is harder to pick-up on the cues that indicate emotional responses and the limited physical cues may be misread.
  • Conversely, compassion and empathy may be difficult for leaders to convey.
  • Leaders who have never managed remote employees may struggle with trusting the productivity and performance of their teams.

So What Solutions Exist for Organizations?

1) Pay attention to employees’ emotional, personal and working experience needs – both formally and informally:

  • Allow for informal interactions, such as virtual lunches or coffees that allow employees to build and maintain personal relationships that help them feel connected to colleagues and the company.
  • Conduct digital focus groups or culture assessments with teams or the company to learn how working remotely affects perceptions of culture – and to hear employees’ suggestions for maintaining and changing it if necessary. Make it clear that feedback is welcome, and actively share information with employees.
  • Involve employees and their families in light of the overlap of work and schooling from home. Create sharing channels and protocols to allow employees to learn about their colleagues’ motivations, challenges and remote working experiences. Leaders should continue to check in with employees via meetings, focus groups or pulse surveys.

2) Plan culture-building communications and events to support company-wide values and mission building by activating and discussing shared experiences among employees.

  • Senior leaders and managers should regularly communicate how the organization is reinforcing its values and culture in the new working environment under COVID-19.
  • Build culture at a team level through shared experiences, even if they are virtual. Many icebreaker activities can be done virtually. Events such as team games, scavenger hunts and social gatherings can help teams get to know the company and each other better. Make the culture as visible as possible and share those activities that work well within the organization.
  • Recruitment and human resources should reassess onboarding programs to be sure employees joining the company can obtain a sense of the company culture through various communications and virtual experiences. One way is to nominate culture ambassadors to mentor and support new employees in learning about and adopting the company culture.

3) Use collaborative technology tools to continue to find ways to share, modify and implement ideas:

  • With platforms like Microsoft Teams and online whiteboards (such as Mural), employees can brainstorm and share ideas in real time – and everyone can contribute. Through these tools, new product development can still occur, incorporating all stakeholder input simultaneously.
  • Schedule short bursts of communication to reduce video/call fatigue and allow for more spontaneous interactions around collaborative ideas. Many companies have set 15-minute limits on meetings to ensure focus.
  • Build new rituals, patterns and processes as organically as possible, with leadership stepping in if needed to establish essential structures proactively.

Closing

Along with flexibility about how we work, culture must be adaptive in the current dynamic environment. Corporate culture should be our guide for delivering business objectives through the ongoing changes and the future of work. By using digital Remesh focus groups or our Mercer Culture48 assessment, informal and formal communication strategies, and technology to support collaboration, leaders can transmit, build and recognize culture across an organization – even under remote working conditions. Now is the perfect time to determine how your culture is holding up under the dramatic changes in how employees experience work and to develop new ways of working.

 

Virgin Pulse. 2017 State of the Industry Report — a global culture survey of 2,000 companies and 50 countries.

2,3,4 2020 Global Talent Trends Study.

Kimberly Fravil
by Kimberly Fravil

Growth Market Employee Experience Consulting leader