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How has COVID transformed workplace culture? 4 business and HR leaders tell all

workplace culture

Business culture is so important, and has been shown to have a significant impact on both employee engagement and financial performance. While 92% of senior executives believe that a strong company culture would increase their business’ value, just 16% state that their culture is where it should be.

But as the events of 2020 unfurled, our expectations and perceptions of what constitutes a good workplace culture changed dramatically.

Employers and their teams are now navigating an entirely new world of work – some fully remote, some office-based and others on a hybrid model. With this new world of work comes a change in culture. If employees are no longer physically together, how can any culture really remain the same?

No matter what your business does or how it operates today, workplace culture remains a huge selling point. Whether you’re trying to attract new talent, keep existing employees or simply improve the service you provide to your customers; your culture can make a world of difference.

In this article, we talked to four business leaders and HR professionals to understand exactly how COVID has transformed real businesses and take a look at the impact the pandemic has had and how workplace culture has changed as a result.

Before the pandemic, our own research in 2019 found that HR leaders were prioritising culture development (49%) when looking ahead to 2020. Others sought to improve employee engagement and experience (59%) and ensure health and wellbeing (52%). Seemingly, many leaders were shifting away from traditional HR tasks such as pay and compliance towards the ‘softer’ aspects of HR: creating a better culture, employee wellbeing, employer branding, retaining employees and so on. The job market was firmly in the control of employees and making improvements to these ‘softer’ facts of HR could make all the difference when attracting talent.

Unbeknownst to everyone, the onslaught of COVID-19 rapidly changed HR into a purely operational function, especially in the early stages of the pandemic.

Overnight, the majority of interactions with employees become entirely functional: how can we work from home? Do employees need PPE? What equipment do we need? How can we safeguard vulnerable workers? How does the furlough scheme work?

Often the first port of call for most employees during times of crisis, HR leaders across the nation spearheaded short-term problem solving to support their people and maintain business continuity.

As employees transitioned to remote work, many realised the benefits this new way of working delivered: saving money, more time to spend with family and a better work/life balance. In fact, 67% of people said their work-life balance improved when they started working remotely (Fingerprint for Success).

Many businesses are now choosing to operate on a hybrid, fully remote or flexible working model that gives employees more control over their working patterns and places of work.

Rik Courtney, CEO of Be More Social, shares how quickly employers came to the realisation that some form of remote work – whether hybrid or 100% remote – is actually hugely beneficial to both employer and employee.

“COVID has made us all realise and understand that working remotely is actually possible. The systems and the processes that we’ve put in place that allow this to happen makes working from home a viable option.

“This means that our pool of potential employees has grown and the flexibility that our existing staff now have is much greater.

“It’s essentially enriched the team’s weekly working lives, reducing the pressure that comes with working full or part time and balancing other personal commitments such as childcare, looking after pets and caring for elderly relatives. Our employees are no longer worrying as much about dealing with these important personal commitments, as they may have done previously.

“This more flexible work/life balance has encouraged us all at Be More Social to focus more on communication, collaboration, connectivity and creativity more than ever before. Everyone has been supporting each other more than ever throughout the pandemic, and we’ve even hired a mindset coach who works with each employee on a monthly basis to help foster a positive mindset.”

To boot, research conducted by alldayPA into the best places to live and work in the UK for work/life balance found that the majority of the country experienced an uplift in work/life balance after restrictions eased. Sheffield, Bristol and Plymouth are leading the way with the best work/life balance post-pandemic.

While culture remains a priority for many leaders, remote or hybrid working will clearly have an impact on what your culture now looks like. It doesn’t go away in a remote or hybrid setting, cultural beliefs and norms are still established and reinforced, but they are no longer guided by the routines and processes that were once established in the office.

Moreover, cultural norms will likely now be subject to more flexibility and will be influenced by new, non-work factors in employees’ day-to-day lives.

Aleksandra Krstevska is the HR Manager for Evopure, a UK-based natural health company, she shared how the pandemic impacted their culture early on in the pandemic: “We experienced a lack of motivation and enthusiasm in our team, especially because people react differently in times of crisis and the pandemic was hard for some of our colleagues.”

As a result, Aleksandra introduced virtual on-to-one meetings with colleagues to provide a forum for employees to share how they are feeling, how they are finding remote work and to allow employees to provide feedback and suggest ways HR could help them through this lull in motivation:

“I found these one-on-one meetings very helpful even for me as an HR Manager to track each colleague regarding their progress and their performance. However, I’m trying to be not only their HR Manager, but their friend too, because I noticed that empathy is something that is really needed in the workplace.

“We are a pretty small company, everyone knows each other so it’s much easier to act not only as colleagues, but as friends too. Whenever I’m sharing tips and feedback with each team member, I can see that they are starting to feel more motivated. Also, their tasks are successfully completed and their technical and soft skills are improving each week, too.”

As workplace cultures evolve, it is important for HR and wider business leaders to maintain flexibility and agility. Not everyone will be managing remote work in the same way, nor will their attitude towards the pandemic be the same – even after nearly 18 months of living with COVID-19

Danielle Attard, MD of Comgem shared how the pandemic has meant they have embodied the flexibility that the pandemic has provided, and their culture has evolved in the same way: “COVID-19 has allowed us to become more flexible as our customers have become more flexible too. This means some of our team work from home. As a working mum this provided me with greater flexibility with caring for children and juggling working.”

For many, in both HR and other functions, the pandemic has widened the breadth of their roles. From HR having to manage remote work, find new (remote) methods to ensure employee engagement and satisfaction and updating benefits overnight to sales teams having to master the art of online sales meetings, demonstrations and negotiations; many employees’ roles have changed significantly in a very short space of time.

Watford-based OnSkil is a digital platform that connects candidates in the IT industry with employers. Throughout the pandemic, they have noticed a significant shift in the way their clients’ roles have changed: “We work with HR teams and they’re telling us that as many have seen their role expand in terms of welfare during the pandemic, they’re on the lookout for tools and systems to make things such as hiring or admin much more efficient. We’re seeing an appetite for innovation accelerated due to COVID-19, which I don’t think will slow down,” said Nick Brand, Co-Founder of OnSkil.

Workplace culture tips

In a practical sense, it is clear that COVID has heightened the demand for tools and techniques that deliver efficiencies in every area of business. Throughout the pandemic, HR teams, together with senior leadership have had to devise new ways to maintain meaningful connections with their people and ensure they don’t become alienated from the business. We continue to witness an abundance of social events on Zoom, quizzes and virtual get-togethers taking place at many businesses, but many have also actively sought new systems to streamline recruitment, on-boarding and engagement during these newly remote times.

As a result, workplace culture will be impacted by these new ways of doing things. Different processes and procedures for tasks that may have been carried out in person before, are now being brought online. Job roles and expectations are changing. More and more team members may be working remotely. Importantly, HR leaders must reassess their outlook on what constitutes a good culture and how it is fostered in this entirely new world of work.

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About Natural HR

Natural HR is a cloud-based HR software company for growing businesses with 100+ employees. Since launching in 2010, we’ve been building a comprehensive suite of HR functionality that equips the small to medium-sized enterprise with everything needed to build an effective and efficient HR operation.