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Positive product of the pandemic: culture

Actions are amplified during trying times like COVID-19 crisis and recent protests, i4cp CEO writes.
By: | June 2, 2020 • 5 min read
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

This is the third in a series about the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s recent work around culture. Check back soon for more, including articles on such topics as whether culture predicts performance, traits of a healthy culture and the benefits of creating a culture of learning. Read the first in the series here and the second here.

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“Our engagement results are so much higher … than they were just day to day,” said one of the members of our Employee Experience Exchange group via Zoom recently, echoing the sentiments other participants had written in the chat section. “I feel like we have always really cared about our employees a lot, but we just say it more, we’re so much more demonstrative about it now. We really care about our employees and … we’re showing it more.”

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That may be one of the ultimate silver linings of the COVID-19 crisis—and hopefully also in the events following George Floyd’s death—true leaders have stepped up, and companies have exhibited a level of empathy the workforce has never seen before. Examples are everywhere, from heartfelt and frequent communication to additional pay, relaxation of working hours, additional benefits and more vacation. Many companies have gone the extra mile to help their employees cope with levels of crisis most have never experienced in their lifetimes.

And for those companies, while that reaction is heartwarming, it’s also strategic. As Mark Cuban said in relation to the pandemic a few weeks ago, “How companies respond … is going to define their brand for decades. How you treat your employees today will have more impact on your brand in future years than any amount of advertising, any amount of anything you literally could do.”

Actions during trying times are amplified. With the confluence of crises, an organization’s consumer brand and employer brand are, for good or bad, being determined now. As we’ve outlined in the New Corporate Currency, the interconnectedness of Purpose, Culture and Brand has always existed but is much more pronounced during this pandemic than it ever was in the past.

Related: Report lays out a blueprint for ‘culture renovation’

According to a recent survey we conducted, “Corporate Culture During the Pandemic,” it appears most companies understand this and are heeding Cuban’s advice. Of the hundreds of companies that responded, a full 75% said the pandemic has positively affected their organization’s culture.

However, with layoffs, furloughs and failing businesses, and unemployment at an all-time high, there are certainly organizations where culture has been negatively affected. As one survey respondent wrote: “Over 45,000 employees have been furloughed since April 1. Many are choosing to seek new jobs rather than waiting to be recalled,” while another added, “team members are more stressed; we had to furlough and RIF people, which has created job security concerns.” Another was even more succinct: “Economics first. Employees second.”

Naturally, those respondents made up some of the 18% above.

But the negative reactions were not nearly as many as I imagined when we launched this study. As I read through page after page of comments, I became overwhelmed by people who were inspired, engaged and thoughtful during this difficult time. I felt like I had a window into the life of workers everywhere, and that same “window” is something many cited as a reason organizational culture has improved.

“Though our organization has always been somewhat people-focused, the situation with the pandemic has increased enormously our level of empathy and understanding for how people have to cope with life outside of the workplace,” wrote one. “It’s been amazing to ‘live’ in each other’s homes and see a very different side of everyone from our CEO to – well – everyone. It allows us to appreciate how we are ‘one whole person’ and not two different ones. Virtual working and the tools we use for meetings have been a great equalizer as well, bringing home an equality of participation that was not the same when some are in the meeting room and others are dialing in.”

Another said, “We have had to learn to operate in a virtual world and the idea that our campus created our culture has been proven to be wrong—it is the leadership and people who create the culture.” Still another added, “Employees have finally been empowered to manage their work and their schedule. There is now ‘proof’ of their dependability and self-responsibility, which goes beyond the words and platitudes.”

While the positive vibes are being widely felt, most also recognize there are likely more cultural changes on the horizon. When we asked those same companies if they anticipated “major” changes to their culture in the future as a result of the pandemic, 57% said they did.

That’s the potentially cautionary tale for culture in the future. In our wildly popular study published last year, titled Culture Renovation, we found that only 15% of companies who set out to change their culture succeeded in doing so. While I’m certain respondents answered our question above with the intent that there would be unplanned or unintentional changes to culture as a result of the pandemic, I’m also certain there will be a wave of organizations that will attempt to intentionally change their culture post-pandemic. While it’s not easy, it can be done, as the companies we profiled in Culture Renovation showed. By following the 18-action step “blueprint” outlined in the study, many organizations have successfully renovated their culture over time.

But our construct of “time” has also morphed, and if companies do set out to make changes, my expectation is it can happen more quickly than before. “The myth that things just take a long time was shattered,” was observed by another respondent, and many companies surprised themselves at how quickly they can put changes into place when necessary. “Confidence in our resiliency has only grown. People see that we can adapt and pivot very quickly,” was another quote that showcased the new attitude organizations are adopting.

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Today, we need resiliency more than ever. Long live the resilient organization. Those that leverage crisis to effect positive change will undoubtedly set up their organization’s culture—and their brand—to succeed for many years in the future.

Kevin Oakes is the CEO of the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and is a frequent author and international keynote speaker on topics such as organizational culture, talent management, leadership, innovation, metrics and strategic learning in organizations.

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