Have workplace cultures really improved during the pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been going on in some form for almost two years now. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the pandemic has forced businesses to take a hard look at the state of their workplace cultures, and how COVID-19 is changing work.

But with the sentiments of managers and HR diverging so massively from those of employees, are business leaders being too quick to pat themselves on the back? Let’s look at the findings and break down the best ways to support workplace culture during a pandemic.

Managers and employees disagree about the state of workplace culture

The Society for Human Resource Management recently released findings which show that 99% of HR professionals report that they ‘encourage a culture of open and transparent communication,’ and almost three-quarters of executives, vice presidents and senior managers believe that their business’s culture had improved since the beginning of the pandemic.

In other circumstances, these might be quite reassuring stats to know. Unfortunately, only 21% of employees and 14% of Americans actually agreed with these assessments. In fact, more than a third of working Americans reported that their manager doesn’t know how to lead a team. On top of that, over a quarter stated that their employer doesn’t provide any management training. So, why the discrepancy?

Well, on the one hand, the pandemic has dragged things like employee wellbeing and the idea of job flexibility into the limelight. On the other, 44% of all surveyed employees who had worked remotely reported feelings of isolation and disconnection.

To make matters worse, more than half of employees who left a job in the last five years did so due to their relationship with their manager, compared to only 22% of employees reporting staying in a job because of their manager.

So, maybe the problem is that, even in progressive organisations, managers and HR personnel are thinking too much in terms of future improvements to be made by learning from lockdown. By comparison, most employees are still focused on the present, on issues that in many cases have been present long before COVID reared its ugly head.

How important is workplace culture?

Even if you don’t think you have one, rest assured that workplace culture permeates literally every aspect of your business. Everyone contributes to it, from your CEO, right down to your most junior intern. It doesn’t just affect nebulous-seeming things like the office vibe, but can also make or break your ability to be financially productive.

This is because workplace culture ties in very closely to employee engagement. If you want employees to be truly productive (for example, via discretionary effort, which is engagement-exclusive), then it’s not enough for them to just be engaged in their role. They have to engage with the organisation and their colleagues within it too.

It might seem like there are more important things than workplace culture during a pandemic. But, like a strong wind knocking down a rotten shack, the stress of lockdown just made pre-existing flaws more obvious and much worse.

Improving workplace culture during a pandemic (and after one, too!)

The sole benefit of all this strain being put on workplace culture during a pandemic is that it’s forcing employers to reckon with the fact that they need to do better. There’s a lot to be learned from the impact of COVID-19 on workplace culture that will still be useful long after the pandemic is just a distant memory.

  • Good communication is absolutely essential: This may seem like a no-brainer, but how well people in your business communicate with each other can determine whether you succeed or fail. Lack of communication leads to (sometimes expensive) mistakes, and just generally cost you time-efficiency. But beyond simple productivity, communication keeps employees in the loop, gives them a voice, and reduces the likelihood of turnover.
  • Job flexibility is here to stay: Over the years, job flexibility has become less of a niche perk, and more or a basic expectation. Of course, the final push came from the proliferation of remote work during the pandemic, with telecommuting continuing to prove popular with the vast majority of its participants.

    But employers shouldn’t overlook other forms of job flexibility to appeal to a wider range of employees. Even if you don’t go for a full-blown 4-day work week with reduced hours and a pay bump, arrangements like core hours, compressed hours or job sharing can help make your workplace more accessible to a deeper pool of talent.
  • Managers and HR must be transparent: One of the biggest impacts on workplace culture during the pandemic is the problem a lack of communication creates with the perception of transparency. Hiding the facts from your employees is a quick way to burn their trust in you.

    But, even if you’re not hiding anything, sloppy communication habits can give the impression that you are. Whether it’s through OKRs, announcements in group meetings, mass emails or any other method, taking the time to keep your employees up-to-date is essential if you want any kind of loyalty.
  • Employees need a good work/life balance: The work/life balance of employees is often the first thing to be sacrificed by an over-zealous manager. But let’s be clear, this kind of approach is inherently unsustainable. Everyone has things they need to get done outside of work, and that’s not even accounting for rest and recuperation. The State of the Global Workplace report revealed that 2020 saw record-breaking levels of job stress, meaning it’s more important than ever that your employees’ time out of work should be their own.
  • But most importantly, follow through: If you only take one piece of advice from this article, let it be this: It doesn’t matter how many wonderful, progressive ideas you have to improve workplace culture during a pandemic (or just in general) if you don’t follow through with them.

    If our hunch from the beginning of this piece is true, employers are spending too much time patting themselves on the back for having vaguely progressive trains of thought, and too little time actually putting them into practice. So, buckle up, get your employees involved in the discussion, and start making better workplace cultures a reality toda

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