Whether employees are continuing to work remotely, reporting into a socially distant workplace, or doing some combination of in-person and remote work, instilling and maintaining a sense of the company’s culture is a tall order.
“In a situation like this, everybody is in their little bubbles, and it’s hard to actually reinforce the shared values and goals of people within the company,” says Cynthia Wang, a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. “Over time, those ties that bind are starting to unravel. But there are things that companies do to ensure that it doesn’t come undone.”
Wang, who researches company cultures, offers advice for leaders on how to continue prioritizing their company’s culture during a tumultuous time, change the parts that aren’t working, and bring new employees into the fold even when they can’t bring them into the office.
Make Time and Space to Prioritize Culture
Even under the best circumstances, developing a shared value system within a company takes time and requires deliberate effort. When employees face a sudden, drastic change in their work environment, leaders need to double down on those efforts to establish and maintain common ground.
“Culture is a luxury,” Wang says. “It’s up to leadership to create a structure of norms, while ensuring that their employees feel like they have a sense of control, too, because otherwise they’re not going to take on the shared value system of the company.”
Maintaining this structure during a period of severe disruption often requires more frequent check-ins with employees, both individually and in small groups. Critically, check-ins must go beyond work deliverables and delve into employees’ concerns about safety and emotional well-being, as well as frank discussions about how they are coping with the broader situation.
In addition to scheduling frequent formal check-ins, leaders will need to consider how they can encourage informal connections among team members now that many of the usual strategies—happy hours, communal coffee breaks—are off the table. After all, these informal connections build communication and trust, which is a bedrock of company cultures.
These informal connections are also often a key to creativity and innovation.
“If you’re a company focused on innovation, you have to work three times as hard in order to make sure that that culture continues in a virtual environment, because the ties that bind are so much harder to keep stable,” Wang says. “A lot of big, innovative companies fear that they might lose their edge because people aren’t right down the hall anymore. They need to cultivate new methods of communication to bounce things off of each other.”
One option for now-remote companies, for instance, is to create asynchronous chat rooms for idea generation and discussion. Wang describes a company that, in the past, built physical breakout rooms for pairs and small groups to meet and brainstorm. The company named the rooms after different elements of the firm’s value system, such as Innovation, and Persistence. This kind of system translates well to the virtual world.
“Building virtual rooms allows a free flow of ideas for people that might wake up in the middle of the night and have an idea to throw out there. People are getting used to this type of format where you riff off one another. This becomes our new water cooler.”
Change What Needs to Be Changed
It may also be time to reassess which parts of your company culture are working—and which may need an update for the COVID era. Take the simple idea of what it means to be “at your job.”
“It’s a sad time, but a good catalyst to change the culture,” Wang says. “The default before was that people have to go to the office. Now the default is, ‘wait a minute, you don’t need to go to the office. In fact, you’ve got to stay away.’ So organizations no longer feel like they’re bending over backward when they are flexible.”
Firms that have built cultures around drive and sacrifice by encouraging long hours and constant availability are particularly being forced to recalibrate. Even firms that have long been comfortable with remote work, for instance, find themselves needing to change expectations around availability as caregiving and other responsibilities bleed into standard work hours.
“We are redefining what ‘being present’ means now—as emails and touch-ins,” says Wang.
Company cultures also need to adjust to protect employees who do come into the workplace each day. For instance, instilling safety as a priority may require a cultural shift, where employees become comfortable flagging things that are out of order and holding others accountable for mask misuse or lack of distancing.
“You need everybody in those situations not to overlook when someone’s mask is down,” Wang says. “Even though it can be annoying, speaking up needs to be an okay thing. Management can lead by example to shift the perception so that you create a culture in which masks are cool.”
But she notes that accountability does not need to be punitive. If, for example, factory workers are sent home without pay if they are feeling unwell, they may be much less likely to self-report, which could lead to larger outbreaks.
“Organizations are going to need to be a lot more oriented toward instilling an ethical climate to keep people safe,” she says.
Beyond individual companies, Wang also sees the need for a change in our national culture to prioritize protecting employees.
“The U.S. tends to be a very promotion-focused culture,” she says. “We tend to be less vigilant—we’re going to get our goals no matter what. But companies are realizing they have to protect the most vulnerable populations within their organizations, including the essential workers who are risking their lives and their family’s lives in order to be in front of people.”
Get New Team Members Off the Ground Right
One of the biggest challenges facing companies that want to prioritize their cultures comes in acclimating new hires into a largely or fully remote workplace. Without the office and meeting traditions that ordinarily acculturate employees, passing along shared values and a sense of community can feel nearly impossible. After all, to these hires, their new firm looks and feels suspiciously like their own home.
So designing onboarding and training programs to promote shared goals and values becomes more critical than ever.
“You need very clear training programs, ” Wang says. “You may already have, say, training in diversity and inclusion efforts, but you need to add training about culture to acclimate them to the climate of the company.”
What exactly this training looks like may be quite different depending on the nature of the business—innovative cultures may rely more on team-building exercises, for instance.
Beyond onboarding, providing outlets for new employees to connect with existing ones—such as smaller virtual pods where newer team members gather knowledge from across the company—can help reinforce culture. After all, often showing
how culture manifests itself is ultimately more important than telling.
One clever idea? Consider having a new hire virtually shadow a mentor. This mentor—perhaps a manager—should be someone who is well respected in the organization, is rich in institutional knowledge, and has a large network of contacts.
“Mentoring usually involves leading by example,” Wang says. “That’s harder to do on Zoom or other platforms, unless you take a step back to set up mentoring sessions where the new person shadows a manager so they can actually see the culture in action.”