Managing workplace culture in the time of COVID-19

by Hudson
Two women with a laptop talking at work

Culture and engagement are critical factors in driving organisational performance, and yet they have had to be re-invented during the COVID-19 disruptions.

The hip office, workplace drinks, onsite gym and days off for birthdays, plus the casual banter around the water cooler: these are all aspects of work which go into creating a cohesive and energised work culture but in 2020 they vanished overnight.

Instead, people have been working from home and only meeting “face to face” occasionally. For many people, their private and work lives have overlapped in ways they never have before as they juggled home education for their children and the need to create home-work spaces in bedrooms and loungerooms.

In one sense, people have got to know more about their colleagues. They can see their homes, have seen their children, their partners and their pets but at the same time the isolation has created major challenges about keeping a team together and maintaining a culture and levels of engagement.

Teamwork has had to function in different ways.

Many business leaders have found that HR issues have become a bigger part of their remit.

CFOs working with their finance teams  are spending more time on welfare, and organising virtual events such as quizzes, cooking lessons and birthday parties to maintain that sense of team togetherness.

“HR Directors are always focused squarely on people issues, but COVID has required a new lens,” says Gareth Russell, Head of People at Hudson APAC.

“It has been critical for them to step up during this transition, finding ways to optimise the conditions under which workplace culture can continue to thrive.”

It is a challenge with many problems to solve, and for many HRDs the situation has also included managing a smaller workforce.

The reality is that the economic disruptions of 2020 have forced many organisations to downsize, so HRDs have been faced with the challenge of maintaining morale and a positive culture in an environment of multiple redundancies.

“Building a cohesive culture while managing redundancies may sound contradictory, but it can be done,” says Gareth Russell.

“Many organisations, and indeed many HRDs, may have abandoned culture building and decided to return to it at a later time, but that only undermines the culture now and in the future.”

Just because a workforce may be half the size it was pre-COVID, says Russell, does not mean that all is lost on the culture front, and a key factor is in making sure that the employees who leave the organisation are treated with care and respect.

Not only is this the right thing to do for them, but how they are treated is likely to have a significant impact on those who are left behind, and are still part of the team.

If the organisation has built a strong culture, then employees will have formed strong bonds and friendships. Colleagues will be mourning the departure of colleagues they have worked with for many Then there is the “pied piper” effect, when an influential person leaves and many others follow, of their own volition, in their wake.

Seeing people exit the organisation and not be treated well will cause resentment and undermine the commitment and the collective culture of the people who stay.

“How an organisation treats outplaced employees has a lasting impact on culture, and has to be one of their key priorities in ensuring a healthy workplace culture is maintained during challenging times,” says Russell.

“HRDs will know they can’t run and hide from this, because it is such a critical aspect of their roles. Notwithstanding the material legal risks at play, they understand that the brand damage that comes from not doing this properly can take years to recover from.

“The people who make up the workforce may change over time, and people come and go. But building a culture is a permanent thing, and its about everyone who is in your organisation today, as well as the people who were in it yesterday and will be in it tomorrow.”