cheerful young brunette businesswoman sitting at the cafe table with laptop computer indoors, wearing wireless earphones, audio call, waving hand
Drobot Dean, Adobe Stock.

Keeping Culture Alive Amid COVID-19

Today’s social distancing can tug on the threads of an organization’s unity. Here’s a look at how to stay tight-knit despite the crisis.

No doubt coronavirus turned the economy—and the way we work—upside down. The vast majority of people who are luckily still employed are working from home if they can. 

It’s an understatement to say the shift has been jarring for many people: Prior to March, just  7% of workers in America had “flexible workplaces,” or the ability to telecommute.

And in non-COVID times, working from home can be a pretty good perk that pays off. A 2015 study by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research found that over a 9-month period, working from home led to a 13 percent boost in performance and cut turnover in half. 

But that was ‘BC’, or before coronavirus.

Today’s work-from-home scenario isn’t ideal: people may be working alongside children, often in ill-suited spaces, such as extra bedrooms or on kitchen tables, with little privacy and ultimately no choice in the matter. Add to the mix some stress, anxiety, illness, home-schooling, isolation, boredom and technology glitches, and remote working can become even more complicated and complex. Distraction grows and productivity plummets. People have started sharing “coronavirus confessions” that reveal they’re playing XBox on conference calls and watching Netflix during the workday. 

Yet in crisis, companies either come together or pull apart. A company’s survival can depend on keeping culture alive and people engaged. And amid social distancing, creative video chats have become the go-to method to achieving that goal.

Keyfactor, an Ohio digital identity security firm, has team video going multiple times a week for its 155 employees: from live working sessions and weekly check-ins, breakfasts and lunches, to open-mic nights, where people perform magic or sing for colleagues. HR Director Mary Mathews even plans to add live virtual meditation classes to the list of events.

That kind of virtual connection may work for some groups, but not others. Live video chats can feel awkward to some people, who say it heightens their self awareness. 

“I used to hate doing FaceTime and video chat,” says Cassie Fick, the office manager at Baltimore software firm Planit. “Now I’m completely fine with it because I miss the people I work with. It’s become a necessity to connect with other human beings now.”

Dubbing herself Planit’s “cruise director of fun,” Fick has tried to keep alive the culture and connection among the company’s 60 workers temporarily relegated to their  home offices. She organized a St. Patrick’s Day virtual scavenger hunt, a Netflix party where employees watched a movie “together,” and several Zoom happy hours and coffee meet ups. They even had a “Prom” social hour where everyone wore their fanciest clothes.

“At Planit, we’re social butterflies by nature, and we feed off of each other’s energy,” says Fick. “So we suffered culture shock when the pandemic forced us to work from home.”

In some ways, COVID-19 has allowed Planit’s staff to get to know each other in a more personal way. They’re seeing each other’s complete lives on display, from the state of home work spaces to children creeping along the edges of the screens. At one of the happy hours, an employee gave the staff a virtual tour of her house. “It’s a much more intimate environment because you’re in their personal space,” says Fick. 

Bingo, trivia and magic

Some people now find that they prefer video chats over traditional phone calls for most conversations. “I think seeing people’s emotion and expression promotes faster thinking and stronger responses,” says Melanie Goldsmith, CEO of companies Smith & Sinclair and Pollen, UK makers of alcoholic and CBD candy.

Goldsmith tries to break up lockdown monotony for her team at Smith & Sinclair by hosting weekly pub trivia quiz nights. Last week, they played “Two Truths and a Lie” and next week, Bingo is on the calendar. 

Similarly across the Atlantic, the 50 employees at London advertising agency Elvis take breaks during the day to post video clips of their non-work life. That’s included clips of magic tricks, brownie-baking demonstrations and shots of grilled cheese sandwiches sizzling. It’s all uploaded in a special Google chatroom the firm created called Elvisolation, where colleagues can comment.

Transparency comes first

Of course, even the most creative culture-building exercises won’t matter if companies don’t meet the basic needs of remote employees first, says Adam Pressman, a partner with HR consulting firm Mercer.

He says transparency should be at the top of the list for company leaders, sharing honest information with employees about the economics of the situation. “They want to know, ‘Do I have a job?'” Pressman says.

Mathews of Keyfactor agrees. COVID-19, he says, will leave a mark on our global economy and psyche for the foreseeable future. “It is hard to imagine a time in which trust is more important on all fronts,” she says.

Leaders should ensure they are continuing to provide people with the basics to do their jobs: technology, communication tools, safety information and clear direction about how processes and procedures may have changed, and how COVID-19 may change their job duties, says Pressman.

Finally, company executives cannot ignore the impact on mental health and relationships that comes from isolation, fear and stress. A Mercer poll last week of HR executives found that 94% of managers are stepping up mental health services for workers amid coronavirus. Many HR execs are now reaching out weekly to find out how their employees are doing, encouraging schedules that separate work and family life, and motivating their teams to get outside and do something they love. 

Fick at Planit says she recently sent out an email with a list of free services for wellness and fitness. Boston-based Jenzabar, an educational software provider, started holding special online meetings to discuss staff emotions and encouraging employees to share any issues they are having, almost like a virtual support group. 

That kind of cultural glue will prove vital to an organization’s ability to weather COVID-19’s crushing impact—a blow that’s changing work in ways we’ve never before seen.

“If there is a high level of commitment and engagement, you can emerge stronger on the other end,” Pressman says. “It’s got to be a rallying cry that we’re all in this together.”