Why COVID-19 has been a 'pressure test' for company culture

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With the second half of 2020 well under way, many employers have survived the tumultuous transition to remote work in the wake of COVID-19. While keeping employees safe has been a high priority, preserving company culture has also been top of mind, says Peter Mulford, executive vice president at BTS, a leadership training firm.

“COVID-19 hasn't been a hit to company culture so much as it has pressure tested it,” Mulford says. “It’s given everyone on the planet an opportunity to stop and think about what really matters to us and then move in that direction.”

Mulford says employers who have fared the best in maintaining company culture during the pandemic understand how their mission can be adapted during times of crisis.

“What does your mission and vision and values actually look like when the world is under duress?” Mulford says. “This is a good opportunity to sit down and reaffirm who you are and what you are about when it comes to your culture.”

Read more: Can your company culture weather coronavirus?

While the pandemic has challenged employers and employees, trust is a critical part in moving company culture forward.

“If you don’t believe that your people are creative enough and smart enough to find solutions to the problems presented by COVID-19, then you're panicking,” Mulford says. “But I don’t think it’s true to say that people aren't smart enough and creative enough — [they are] if you give them the trust and the tools to do it themselves.”

While 88% of employees say their company culture is important to them, a third of employees say they feel “less connected towards both their company culture and colleagues” during COVID-19, according to a survey by Achievers, a workplace engagement platform. Fifty-two percent of U.S. employees miss having social interactions with their coworkers, according to a Glassdoor survey.

To encourage feelings of connection and engagement, Mulford says it’s important for managers to evaluate what worked before COVID-19, and figure out how to adapt remotely.

“Step one is stop and take stock: What is our company culture to begin with?” Mulford says. “At BTS for example, we have virtual parties on Zoom for everyone to get together — it’s a virtual version of what we used to do live in the office.”

While companies may be eager to launch new programs or activities to build community during this time, it’s important to collaborate with those the programs are designed to benefit.

“Put some teams together to reimagine some of the events or training in a virtual environment,” Mulford says. “HR should be there to make sure that it's appropriate and that it’s consistent with HR protocols. But after that, get the very people for whom this is intended involved.”

While not every effort will work in boosting team morale or advancing the mission of the company forward, Mulford says employers should see this as an opportunity for future learning. These lessons will drive a company’s success well beyond 2020.

“You should constantly be on the lookout for what are the interesting ways in which the world is changing and what are the opportunities and threats equally that these changes represent?” Mulford says. “The ambitious [companies] are already out there way ahead of the pack — they're already living in 2023 and they're not going to turn it around and wait for everybody to catch up.”

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