Workplace culture during pandemic: A virtual success

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The primary focus of the culture analyst role in Great Place to Work is to assess client-submitted reports: reflections of their culture, newly introduced practices and initiatives over the previous year. Key to this is the observation of macro trends within organisational cultures, while also noting the subtle changes that are gradually integrated over time. As you may expect, the changes which have occurred over the last year have been anything but subtle.

Looking back to last March, it was difficult to predict what form these submissions would take. Under ordinary circumstances, we were usually starting from some core assumptions: a group working in shared space, where events and communication methods intended to reflect and perpetuate culture drivers were conducted with relative ease. The year 2020 had other plans.

What we received were accounts of adaptation, camaraderie despite distance, and extra appreciation of efforts. Despite all that was occurring in the world, there was much cause for optimism.

Flexibility and trust
Almost overnight, entire organisations pivoted to work-from-home set-ups. This would have been enough of a departure from normality without the backdrop of a global pandemic. For organisations lucky enough to continue to operate, customers still required service, and in some industries, companies found themselves busier than ever.

One may be forgiven for expecting that organisations would need to implement rigid schedules to ensure deadlines were met. However, what we saw was the opposite: flexibility extended to employees, with leaders trusting that staff were doing their best in an unprecedented circumstance. The common theme was one of understanding: an underlying agreement that roles had suddenly fused, where employee and parent, partner or carer were now inseparable. The phrase “bringing your whole self to work” never rang so true.

Leaders not only extended that flexibility, but led the way: highlighting the importance of taking time to recharge, being open about the complexities in their own work/life balancing act, and ensuring, should issues arise, that they would be received with the human behind the role in mind.

Virtual connectivity
Traditional workplace social events have relied on bringing employees together under a celebratory theme, with a decorated physical space, and – perhaps most importantly – a selection of treats. It’s clear to see how the past year has disrupted these initiatives. And yet: culture and connection are inseparable, and employees crave connection with their colleagues, social creatures that we are.

Enter the social committee, which has shown its value this year like never before, devising novel platforms for connection, in conditions where physical proximity simply wasn’t an option. The initiatives we’ve seen are far too extensive to express in full here, but it’s safe to say that social committees, or often HR personnel in smaller companies, have outdone themselves this year, devising entire calendars of virtual events.

These activities represented more than a simple get-together. Instead, they provided a platform for connection when isolation was the norm. What on the surface could seem simply to be a quiz, for others may have been the only form of social interaction they had that day. A virtual birthday celebration may have seemed to be just a nice thought, but represented a reminder that employee life events were still important. With remote work here to stay, we must remember the value of regular connection to both individual and organisation alike.

Caring management
For the most part, organisations have been able to continue their recognition programmes, needing only to digitise the communication component. The key difference this year has been the recognition of roles and individuals who have greatly contributed to an organisation’s adaptation to the pandemic. Cleaning teams, IT departments, dedicated HR personnel and compassionate leaders have been offered gratitude by their colleagues, often demonstrating their appreciation with heartwarming statements and surprise gifts.

In addition, there has been a notable emphasis on thanking employees for continuing to give their best during the pandemic, and those who have been active in supporting their colleagues encountering hardship. Appreciation has been shown through vouchers, bonuses, additional time off, and, crucially, verbal recognition in a group forum. With care and compassion coming to the forefront this year, it is encouraging to see such behaviours recognised.

Online optimism
This is far from the full story. Communications have been adapted to a virtual medium by necessity, and listening practices have greatly increased. Development has been pivoted to online delivery, an extensive range of wellbeing supports have been enacted, and charitable giving continues to be conducted in a remote setting.

This entire report could be filled outlining the innovative, creative initiatives that we’ve seen from organisations in responding to the complexities presented over the previous year. We hope that by what we have included, you will find reason to share our optimism for the future of work and the culture that enables it.

Best Workplaces 2021 - A special supplement with The Irish Times

This article originally appeared in ‘Best Workplaces 2021‘ a Special Report from The Irish Times, published March 2021.

Click here to learn more about Special Reports from The Irish Times.


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