A company’s “culture” is a complex concept. Company culture is undeniably important to any business, but it’s difficult to come up with a concise definition. It’s even harder to effectively and consciously steer that culture in one direction or another, especially during a pandemic.
Defining Company Culture
Indeed provides the following definition of company, or business, culture:
“Business culture refers to the set of behavioral and procedural norms that can be observed within a company — which includes its policies, procedures, ethics, values, employee behaviors and attitudes, goals and code of conduct. It also makes up the ‘personality’ of a company and defines the work environment (e.g., professional, casual, fast-paced).
Other elements that make up company culture include management style, expectations, company goals, local and national government policies, benefits/perks, opportunities to advance, the way employees feel about the work they do and disciplinary action methods your business uses.”
Some of the elements in that definition are easily controlled by management:
- Code of conduct
- Company goals
- Disciplinary action methods
But others are much fuzzier and are driven by the company’s workforce as a whole or by groups within it, such as managers at various levels:
- Employee behaviors and attitudes
- Management style
- The way employees feel about the work they do
One of the elements in the Indeed definition is particularly relevant to this feature: the work environment. This element has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic perhaps more than any other, and in this feature, we look at how widespread and sudden changes to this element might ripple through a company’s culture.
What impact will it have on the company culture if and when staff return to the office? To what extent can companies reclaim some of the things they might have liked about their pre-COVID culture?
Holding onto Pre-COVID Culture
Of course, the best way to have a company’s post-COVID culture resemble its pre-COVID culture as closely as possible is to never lose that culture in the first place. But it’s extremely hard to retain an office culture based, in part, on regular in-person interaction in the office, including the informal relationships and the nonverbal communication and informal, ad hoc discussions an in-person setting allows.
Think of company culture how you might think of a widespread civilizational culture, like the culture of the United States. When staff are in-office, they’re regularly in contact with one another and represent the entire “nation.” Now imagine that all 50 states are suddenly cut off from one another by physical barriers.
Over time, that united national culture would weaken, and regional cultures would take on greater importance. The culture of Texas would become further distinguished from the cultures of Wyoming, New York, and California.
The same is true on a small level for the office when shifting to remote work. The once relatively unified culture shared by Lisa, Omar, Juan, Caroline, and Samuel starts to break down as these remote employees spend more time in their own remote offices with their own work habits isolated from their coworkers.
Effective communication and maintaining valued traditions are key to keeping culture intact while the office is shuttered.
“Overall, I believe it comes down to effective communication and clear policies,” says Jeremy Bernard, CEO North America for essensys. “After a year of forced lock down, managers should have an excellent sense of how teams work remotely, a deeper understanding of how to troubleshoot issues, and who needs support. Successfully navigating hybrid work teams requires flexibility, adaptability, and best-of-breed technology to make it all work safely and securely.”
Jessica Robinson, content manager from “The Speaking Polymath,” says her company focuses on maintaining shared traditions and rituals to help keep the culture strong. “Every company has some traditions which it has been following since its inception,” she notes. “To maintain the workplace culture in the prevalence of hybrid working, we are trying our best to keep our workplace traditions intact.
For example, earlier we used to conduct a sports meet every Saturday evening in our organization. But, as with the prevalence of hybrid working, some employees work in the office on Saturdays and others work from home, we conduct games and fun activities virtually. All employees who are available in the office sit together in the hall and others working from home join us via video conferencing. Then, we play games like Pictionary and Bingo which can be easily played in the hybrid work settings.”
Managing Company Culture in a Hybrid Environment
Many companies recognize and have already decided that the old in-office paradigm will not return post-pandemic. Some have already begun downsizing their pre-COVID office space, meaning employees who once worked there will no longer have a dedicated, full-time work space. These companies are either shifting to permanent remote work or implementing a hybrid environment, in which staff work some days in the office and some days remotely and may have considerable flexibility around if and when to come to the office at all.
This hybrid dynamic is arguably a more challenging one in terms of company culture than one in which all staff are remote because in-office and remote employees have a very different workplace experience.
An important consideration here is ensuring that all employees share a sense of belonging and camaraderie wherever they’re based. You shouldn’t consider your off-site and on-site employees to be in two different “buckets” but rather as part of one whole.
“One of the most important ways to build a strong culture within a hybrid work environment is to constantly provide opportunities for onsite and remote employees to work together,” says Daivat Dholakia, director of operations at Force by Mojio. “My company has a Slack channel that’s for full-time remote employees, and it’s been a great way to share advice and support. However, we also work hard to facilitate teamwork opportunities between remote and onsite employees.
For example, each time I have a small project that several people within my company are equipped to tackle, I’ll try to mix remote and onsite employees into the team. It keeps our employees invested in each other as coworkers and humans, even if they’re not seeing each other face-to-face.”
Company culture is often hard to pin down into a few simple words, and it’s notoriously difficult to consciously mold into an ideal management might have; but this doesn’t mean companies can wash their hands of company culture. Employees place great value on a favorable company culture, and to the extent a company had a strong culture pre-COVID, it’s certainly in its best interests to retain as much of it as possible as staff work remotely and start to return to a new, hybrid environment.
This culture retention won’t just happen. Organizations and their managers need to be proactive and deliberate in maintaining the most valuable elements.