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What to expect of post-COVID workplace culture

Our HR Lunchtime Debate on 14 May explored what company cultures will look like post-pandemic, asking how they can become more people-centric and what HR can do to lead the shift

Emma Jayne, area director of people and culture at luxury hotel group Dorchester Collection, admitted she is “thrilled” to be working in people and culture at the moment.

“[The pandemic] is such a massive, massive opportunity for us to change the future of work. I just think, what a great time to be working in people and culture, to be able to influence that,” she added.

Our other panellists agreed that the lockdown, and forthcoming return to work, is a rare moment to shake up the way companies ‘do’ culture, manage employee engagement and run themselves from a practical perspective.

As Kristofer Karsten, head of people and culture at Ceridian HMC, said: “There’s a real window of opportunity during this crisis to get that culture, that people-driven leadership right.”

That window is all the more important given that only 62% of 271 webinar poll respondents felt their organisation reflected on and worked on issues raised in employee engagement surveys. A third (33%) said sometimes, while 5% said no.

McGuire added: “I think that many companies go into engagement surveys with lots of ambition and forget engagement and cultural change probably comes best from small but sustainable steps in terms of the changes you want to make.”

This is a perfect moment to make those sustainable changes that improve employee experience. So, what do workers need from their companies right now?

Jayne spoke about widespread anxiety among her staff, about issues such as coming back to work via public transport and remaining safe in the workplace. The Dorchester Collection, she said, is managing employee anxiety through initiatives such as face mask-making and “quadruple the ordinary level of internal comms,” but it is still a challenge.

Karsten added: “There are a lot of mixed messages in the media, and there’s a lot of confusion. Our employees are looking for leadership.”

Agile companies

The return to work is currently at the forefront of many HR strategies – 64% of 284 poll respondents said that their organisation had developed a plan so far, though the remaining 36% said their businesses hadn’t (23%) or they didn’t know (13%) of such plans.

Exploring what post-pandemic workplace cultures will look like all our panellists agreed that post-pandemic workplace cultures will have to be more agile. For Susan McGuire, interim manager at the University of Strathclyde, agility has been a key part of her organisation’s coronavirus response and one she hopes will last.

“We’ve already started to go from quite static, formal ways of doing things to something much more dynamic,” she said.

“Flexible working has come in, as much for helping people with families as to deal with the workload. Informal communication has become much more prevalent. And as an organisation I think two things have become much more important: greater awareness of the employee as a person, and much more altruism.”

The University of Strathclyde does not have a strategy yet, she admitted, but there is one in progress. McGuire added: “We’re starting to think about a July or August return.”

With an on-campus population of 30,000, four-fifths of whom move around hourly, “perhaps only a third of our workforce would be in at any particular time,” she said. “As a result, I think we’d be better able to continue some of the positive changes we’ve made to people’s work-life balance. I think that will benefit the workforce, reduce anxiety, improve our wellbeing and improve our employee engagement.”

Daniele Fiandaca, co-founder of Utopia, agreed that agility was key to business success. “Businesses who aren’t being agile going forward are not going to survive,” he said.

For him, agility is particularly important when it comes to assessing productivity. He said the pandemic is a moment to “move to output-based businesses, where you are measured fundamentally on output and nothing else,” he said. “Micro-management just doesn’t work when people are working flexibly and remotely. Time-based [work] is not the future.”

Additionally, the most successful employers of the future will be agile in their use of technology. AI was always going to change the number of people who consider an office their workplace, said Fiandaca. “I think the crisis will speed this up. We will see culture change to include more breakout rooms, more inclusion and diversity, led by new technology such as Zoom.”

Karsten added that tech can allow companies to “maintain a real-time dialogue” – with their customers and employees – promoting greater agility and meaning progress is made more quickly.

For Jayne, meanwhile, agility is about being on the ball and reacting accordingly. “I think the key to really great leadership in the future is going to be about two steps ahead and anticipating what’s coming for your customers and your employees,” she said.

Empathetic leadership

Speaking of the success of female world leaders in fighting the coronavirus, our panellists saw another opportunity for businesses to learn from the current crisis.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the female leaders around the world seem to have fared much better, because I think that empathetic and vulnerable leadership has been a key part of their success,” Fiandaca said, evoking nods from the other panel members.

“I hope this will help people understand the need for a completely new type of leadership. Without that leadership, you’re just not going to get through [the pandemic].”

McGuire agreed, adding that some traditional leadership styles – pretending to know everything, not admitting to mistakes, not communicating with people at every level – have not worked well during the crisis.

Similarly, Jayne pointed to the need for kindness, the key theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, in leadership and daily life at the moment. “We’re going to need a lot of that in the weeks and months to come,” she said.

All had experienced the benefits of empathetic leadership in their own organisations.

For Karsten, there has been a notable “move away from prescriptive leadership and a focus on people and behaviours” at Ceridian. “People do have babies, they have kids, they have a life outside their work,” he said – and the pandemic has made this clear, to the organisation’s benefit.

McGuire’s employer, the University of Strathclyde, had gone even further.

“Our principal has given us every Friday off since we’ve been in lockdown,” she explained. “We’ve been working a four-day week. That’s recognising the fact that working from home and Zoom culture can be fatiguing, but also that people in their homes are balancing their children throughout the day, and they tend to start early and finish late. There’s a recognition that for all of us, by the time it gets to a Thursday, everyone’s having mini burnouts.

“One of the big policies we’d want to have a look at, as a socially progressive employer, is whether or not we can enable people to work on a more compressed-hour basis and have more time in the home post-pandemic.”

Fiandaca had likewise seen a shift to more flexible working and people-centric culture among the companies he works with. “Will it stick?” he wondered. “I think it will come down to a mindset shift. A people-centric culture is wanted by most – so we need to be surveying and speaking to our people about what they want now and going forward.

“How do we make sure that everyone in our business feels comfortable? Understanding their circumstances and first and foremost making sure they’re healthy both physically and mentally.”

Going forward

Polling whether there has already been a positive change in company culture since the switch to remote working, 46% of 296 respondents said, ‘undoubtedly yes,’ 44% said a little, and 10% detected no change.

The figures reflect a remarkable change for the better – a positive shift in employee engagement, a sense of a common goal, and an uptick in kindness and empathy. As McGuire put it: “In these very difficult times, people are stepping up to the play. There’s a huge recognition about the way we can work together more positively as a team, as a bunch of individuals, I think we’re looking out for each other more and I think that all of that is contributing towards a really positive culture change.

“The key for me is to make sure that we can capitalise on that change as we move forward and out of this period of time. We can really use it to benefit our organisations.”

But there is clearly still room for improvement on company culture both in lockdown and beyond.

Quoting Rahm Emanuel, Fiandaca said: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. It’s worth looking at what does this mean our business can look like in the future?”

Further reading:

Culture change is never instant

Emotional intelligence – the new skills gap

A time for compassionate leadership

A recording of the webinar is now available on demand here.

This piece appears in the May/June 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.